Palaeography Update


Yesterday, I explained that I still felt distant from the medieval parishioners who rioted against the neighboring monks, and I noted that one distancing factor was the difficulty of reading the 14th-century Latin handwriting. But today, I had a revelation–it’s the study of that handwriting that brings me closer to these people.

This revelation came during the second session of my Secretary Hand course. As we were slowly but surely reading through an inventory appended to a will, I realized that we were actually catching a glimpse of the actions of the individuals who were dictating and writing it. I could imagine one person–perhaps a parish clerk–sitting at a desk writing, while another pulled linens out of an old chest, listing them off and clearly not always understanding exactly what he was seeing.”Kirtle”, for example, is crossed out and replaced with “girtle”, and there are a few times when items are repeated because they were uncovered later in the process of the inventory. For instance, in line two there are listed two “crossclothes,” which we presumed, based on the fact that this was a chest of the testator’s wife’s child-bed linens, were churching clothes–then in line seven, there are listed “three crossclothes more.” I could actually imagine the person digging through the chest for linens and the parish clerk becoming frustrated as he had to keep crossing out words.

I am still struggling with my documents and will likely do so for some time, but today’s happy realization–that studying the strokes of each cursive letter brings the document, and the individuals within it, to life–has given me just the motivation I need to return to the record office tomorrow and tackle another deed or will.



Adventures in Research–Week 1 in the UK


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I’ve been in England for about a week now, ostensibly for research, but also for the old churches (even those not part of my dissertation), the weather (the cloudier the better), the hiking in East Anglia (autumn in England is amazing!), the tea, and the pubs. For this first of two months here in the UK, I am researching a parish conflict that occurred in 1378, in which the parishioners and their vicar tore down the walls of the attached monastery and booted out the monks. I’m also taking a paleography class at the archive, which is basically two hours of embarrassment per week of my struggles to read aloud to the class eight or so lines of the Secretary Hand.

The problem is that the documents make it difficult to really get at the conflict. I have yet to find a monk who chronicled the event and doubt I ever will, so all I have are petitions, court records, and the king’s decision on the matter to let the parishioners have independence from the monastery that shared their church; yet, I have nothing that really conveys the emotion or motives behind this conflict. Right now, the closest I get to the parishioners is through their wills, which are few and far between and are in some ways somewhat inaccessible to me since I am still learning how to transcribe them.

What I do have are the writings of some antiquarians who see this conflict as seminal in the development of parish and monastery, and who actually see this time as the height of their glory. The monks, despite being temporarily thrown out of their monastery, had received funds from local benefactors to build a beautiful monastery prior to the conflict, and the parishioners, after strong-arming the prior and his monks, finally received independence and the permission to reconstruct and beautify their own church.  The lesson we learn here, then, is that  there is nothing wrong with a little conflict, especially if it’s on behalf of one’s church.

But will I ever know about the individuals who banded together to fight for their church? I am returning to the record office today to trace some of the names of the prominent benefactors of the 14th century and to also find more information on the king’s decision to let them build their church. So far, however, any evidence of lived religion in the parish is the very existence of the conflict itself. And actually, I am not discouraged by that. It’s so easy to dismiss conflict as an aberration in community relations, whereas I see it as an inevitable and necessary part of a community. If I am reading the documents and antiquarians correctly, it would seem that no one was worse off after this conflict–locals kept donating to parish and monastery, the vicar and prior still show up together in wills, and the monastery and parish church were beautified before and after the conflict.

I will write more about these adventures in research–and would love to hear your thoughts!–and will also use this blog to update you on other travel adventures. For example, I hope to head out to the church I’m studying this weekend! I am also on a search for the perfect pub here in Chelmsford, Essex–that, too, is worthy of an update.

Until then, I will keep drinking more tea than anyone should consume in a day, I will continue to drink sherry while watching Downtown Abbey and Doc Martin (yes, there is a series set in Cornwall about a Doctor named Martin), and will continue to confuse archivists when I ask for Box H3, because they think I’m asking for Box 8-3, which doesn’t exist (and here I thought studying in Germany was difficult!).


Dogs and Religion

It’s been much too long since I’ve last blogged for a variety of reasons–my father has been ill (although he is thankfully doing much better), I returned to Chicago for a week of exams, meetings, and more meetings, and most recently, my beloved boxer, Isabelle, passed away last Friday evening.  With so much worry and heartbreak over the last few weeks, it has been hard to write about lived religion, and I admit much of that reason is because I rediscovered a favorite scapegoat for all my problems–religion and its empty promises.

Some people depend on their religion when they go through hard times–for most of my family, it is their deep faith and religious communities that help them deal with the unfathomable pain of illness and loss. I am quite the opposite–in my darkest moments, I hate religion for giving me hope and then not following through; I become weary of a life in which loved ones suffer, and my dog’s death was the last straw for me. I was devastated when I watched Isabelle breathe her last breath, heartbroken that she had come to me for help and had trusted that I could give it to her–no amount of prayers and pleading saved her. And when I said my last goodbye, I, at that very moment, really wondered why in the world I care at all about religion. In that time of grief, I viewed religion, lived and believed, as a pointless fantasy.

That was almost a week ago. I am still angry and profoundly sad, but I am gradually opening my eyes to the role Isabelle played in my faith and the role animals in general play in our religiosity. It sounds silly, but really, dogs are the best examples of faith. We all know the truism that dogs are humans’ best friends, loyal to the end. But it goes beyond just being loyal–dogs really do represent what it means to have pure faith in the goodness of humanity. They forgive us our failures, they still love us when we’re not perfect–they represent what it means to be a good friend, a good neighbor–they are goodness epitomized. Many of the medieval parish churches I study have images of dogs carved into pews or choir stalls. One medieval story even tells of a parishioner and his trusty dog’s search for gold that would save the crumbling nave–both he and his dog have special carvings in the parish church that they funded. And at one of my favorite churches in Wymondham, I looked forward to the churchwarden’s visit each day when I researched because he usually brought his dog into the church. If a dog was allowed into a church, I thought, then that’s a church I want to attend!

Indeed, many Christian communities celebrate the importance of animals on October 4 during the Feast of St. Francis. Granted, this isn’t just about dogs, but dogs tend to be the main participants at the Blessing of Pets/Animals. My sister and brother-in-law talked me into taking Belle to this blessing last year. I was so nervous, because Belle had leg problems and I feared that she would become too excited around the other animals and hurt herself. When we arrived in the parish church’s parking lot, I kept Belle at the back of the crowd of barking dogs, determined to keep her safe and away from any feisty dogs with whom she would want to play. When the priest came forward to speak, Belle suddenly calmed down–she knew something important was about to happen. Then, when the priest lifted up the aspergillum, or holy water sprinkler, Belle suddenly locked eyes with him and pushed through the crowd to get closer. The priest was so taken with her that she received extra sprinkles–and at that very moment, I believed. I really did. I believed that the blessing and holy water would protect my precious dog for the year.

Belle died just two weeks shy of her next blessing. She was just two months shy of her tenth birthday. Last week I was so angry that she didn’t make it to these important landmarks and felt we had both been betrayed–didn’t we believe last year that she was protected? But already, I am remembering how much Belle’s capacity to love everyone and all creatures (she even once tried to lick a toad) really did make me a better person. But not only that, Belle gave me faith. Although my interests in religion often are academic, there were times with Belle that gave me sincere faith in God, even if I wasn’t sure what that meant. I am still grieving and will do so for a long time, but I am slowly but surely remembering to be thankful for Belle’s good influence, and for reminding me to have faith.

Blogger’s Block…and Some Thoughts on Conflict and Community

It’s been over a week since I last wrote a post, compounding my guilt that I do not accomplish enough each day. The guiltier I feel, the more likely I am to hide under the covers instead of facing everything I must do. This week I have some grant and paper proposal deadlines, and the more I work on them the less I like them. Likewise, the more I’ve worked on Latin this week the less able I am to read it. Combine this with a slew of small personal crises over the last week and the result is a bad case of blogger’s block. But today I feel I must give this a try, even if the end result is uninspiring.

I have been following pretty regularly the riots in England and the resulting debates surrounding them, both because I care very much about the UK, which I view as a second home, and also because my dissertation is about community conflicts.

Andrew Brown blogged a week or so ago in The Guardian and noted that the infamous “broom brigades” were only possible because of the riots, and so communities do not become communities until they need to fight for something. He notes:

An uprush of decency has been accompanied, confusingly, by people calling for live ammunition to be used on rioters.

Indeed, a common way for communities to act in unity is to identify and attack a common enemy. Brown boils this down to some type of Darwinian phenomenon of groups who compete for dominance. He claims that without this instinct to drive out a common enemy, it is not possible for humans to work together in any other capacity, which may be worrisome to some idealists out there:

Common danger will increase people’s feelings of solidarity, but common danger requires a common enemy.That is perhaps the deepest and most existential threat that liberalism poses to society, because it has an aspiration that there should be no enemies, and that society should enfold everyone.

Brown goes on to note that decency is not inherent, that in fact the rioters and the “broom brigades” are no different from each other, because there are no such social or human norms as kindness and decency–they are responses that can only come out of a crisis or selfish need to “fix” a problem. Many of those individuals who turned out to clean up their neighborhoods, he says, were the same ones who would have ignored a piece of litter before the riots. They are also the same individuals who called the rioters ‘animals’ and have been calling for extraordinarily harsh punishments.

I do agree with the main thrust of Brown’s post–that certain actions produce equal and opposite reactions. I am also the last person to defend human nature–I was unsurprised both by the riots and by the rather harsh, unsympathetic responses to those riots. But then, it wasn’t my home or business being destroyed by a 13-year old boy whose family very well may have been from my same socio-economic class. I doubt I would have said to myself, “Well look at that, Marx would be so pleased.” I’ve browsed other blogs by academics who have pointed to revolutionary implications of the riots, and while I certainly follow their line of thinking, I also wonder how easily we can boil these riots down to an underclass vs. a privileged class. For example, I stayed in South Ealing for a summer, a place where many business were destroyed, and these were working and middle-class Londoners just trying to make a living.  I hesitate to take either side–I am cautious about embracing the riots as the story of a revolutionary underclass, but I also cringe when I hear commentators talk about rioters as “feral animals” who are lazy, worthless, and clearly have bad parents.

I’d like to throw into the mix another way to think about these conflicts, if only because this is how I am thinking about conflict in late medieval parish communities: space and ownership. The UK in general is a country where it is difficult to own anything . Even those with good, well-paying professions live in attached homes, arranged in long rows as far as the eye can see, and the lists to rent a piece of space to garden can actually be so long that later generations have inherited a place on the list. After a while, neighborhoods can seem really small, really crowded, and moving up to anything better may seem like a dream to the lower-and middle-classes; even public transportation rates are inflating to such a point that commuters wonder if they can afford to go to work. Combine this with the increase in tuition and program cuts in most universities, and the result is that youth in particular bear the brunt of the worsening economic situation in the UK

To live in a small space without the means to take some ownership in it is enough to make anyone angry. And those who do own some part of that space will go to great lengths to protect it. If you have never really felt a sense of ownership and the pride that comes with it, then it isn’t so difficult to destroy someone’s home, car, business, etc. For owners, you suddenly realize how much what you own defines you, how it actually forms a large part of your identity.

I will be interested to see how journalists and historians will write about the riots–will they cast them as evidence of an increasingly frustrated underclass? Will they offer solutions? Either way, they need to continue in the vein of Andrew Brown and think about what it is that drives our need for community, what makes us want to be part of one and what it is around which we will rally. When people argue that the youth who participated in the rioting had a poor upbringing, they’re reiterating the truism that “it takes a village.” Brown is right that this isn’t necessarily positive, since a common purpose often translates to the imagining of a common enemy, but either way, the “broom brigades” vs. the rioters have drawn the world’s attention to the ways that conflict can produce social bonds even in the face of divisiveness.

Why Identify as Christian?


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I’ve just finished a delightful evening with my sister, during which we watched Downton Abbey, a British television series centered around a wealthy but soon-to-be-obsolete aristocratic family in the early 20th century, followed by a relatively recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. As I was indulging in this night of anglophilia, I thought about two things: first, I am really looking forward to my research trip to England this autumn; second, and much more relevant to this blog, I realized that Jane Austen didn’t like church all that much, yet she and her friends and family always attended, because that is simply what one does (enter aristocratic British accent, but a good one, not some terrible Anne Hathaway accent from her recent movie).

And then I thought about the post I wrote last week about atheist priests in Holland, which led me to think about how and why people identify with a particular religion, even if they do not hold some of the most basic tenets of that religion; or, alternatively, believe in a particular religion’s beliefs and doctrines but do not regularly practice them. Now you’re asking yourselves, how in the world did she go from a night of BBC television to religious identity? Answer: because I am incredibly random. You should see rough drafts of my work and pity my friends and colleagues who read them–well, actually, this blog is sort of giving you an idea of that.

Since it’s 1am and I’m a bit tired, I’m going to avoid submitting you or even myself to a Durkheimian analysis, despite the nagging temptation to do so. Instead, I shall offer some thoughts that I had on this topic while putting together last Sunday’s photographic essay, a conversation I had with Ness at Alien Spectacles, and an article I recently read in Commonweal, kindly suggested by my brother-in-law.

Now, back to Jane Austen and how she portrays the vicars–they are often silly, boring, or unintelligent; now, Mansfield Park contradicts this point because the main love interest becomes a parson, who defies the dominant view, voiced by many of the characters in this novel,  that all parsons are “stodgy” and unattractive. But this parson’s abilities in his actual job are never developed–he just makes a really great husband for Fanny Price. But it is usually the case that Austen expresses amazement that people continue to fawn over parsons when they can be such idiots (I’m thinking especially of Pride and Prejudice here).

Our atheist priest from Holland in last Tuesday’s posting offers one possible explanation: it’s not about the pastor, it’s about the congregation. His sermons were adapted to meet the needs of his congregation–it was they who created the conversation, not the other way round; and they attended church not to develop a closer relationship with God, but to be part of and identify with a like-minded community to promote such social obligations as neighborliness, universal love, and active service to those in need. This church was about community, both the one created within the church and the ocmmunity that they wanted to create outside of it. Ness–again, who blogs at Alien Spectacles–made a similar point about many Anglicans whom she knows back in her hometown of Sydney. Christianity is just as much about gathering in various church gilds intended to promote the social good as it is about Christ; and while few would fit into the category of “atheist Christian”, they most certainly would not feel compelled to adhere to all theological tenets of the faith.

Commonweal‘s post offers a more extreme example of Christianity as community identity. It posits that the notion of “cultural Christendom,” which is becoming a rallying point for those who want to preserve “Western” ideals, especially against the imagined “incursion” of Islamic ideals. The post argues that when someone identifies with Christianity for this reason, belief in Christ is actually optional. Here is more from the article, offering examples of what is meant by “cultural Christianity”:

One prominent example was the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who spent her last years before her death in 2006 inveighing against a Muslim influx that was turning the continent into what she called “Eurabia.”

Fallaci liked to describe herself as a “Christian atheist” — an interesting turn of phrase — because she thought Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam.

There’s also Scottish-born historian and political conservative Niall Ferguson, who calls himself “an incurable atheist” but is also a vocal champion for restoring Christendom because, as he puts it, there isn’t sufficient “religious resistance” in the West to radical Islam.

Thus the gap between believer and unbeliever in narrowed by some in an attempt to retain a mythical European identity that is tied to a mythical Christianity that is characterized as uniquely Western. The post continues:

The modern-day crusade for Christendom by nonbelievers tends to be rooted in fears about Muslim immigration, but it’s also fueled by worries about the deterioration of European culture — and nostalgia for the continent’s once central place in world affairs.

Indeed, nostalgia is a powerful force in how community is imagined, and it is also what draws many to identify with their Christian community. Returning now to a conversation about Christianity at the local level, I have come to notice that many of my classmates and friends in my hometown have expressed sentiments that can be identified with the town’s evangelical Christianity, even though they do not necessarily attend church regularly or even believe in the theological tenets of the faith. This is not to say that many are not regular practitioners–some are very involved in their local churches. But there are others who are comfortable with the language of local Christianity–with its traditions and the political values that their local religious communities promote, without necessarily knowing or caring much about the whole Christ part of Christianity. They tell you they’ll pray for you when you have a problem, they defend prayer in schools, they are anti-abortion, and anti-enter other faith here, and yet they may not attend church or even tell you exactly what they believe–they are active participants in a particular Christian culture, not necessarily adherents to core doctrines.

I feel like what I’ve just discussed must be very obvious to any of you reading this, but that’s what this blog is about: the taken for granted, those human actions and interactions that are so familiar to us that we often do not see them. I know that it took my departure from my hometown and from the religion in which I was raised to fully see how I have been shaped by that community. I truly hope that you will comment with your own stories or opinions about religious community and identity so that we can continue the conversation.

And to conclude, I leave you with the words of one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen, who has her own take on Christianity, identity, and community:

It will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nationMansfield Park

Give Me That Home-Town Religion


I’ve just returned from a trip to my childhood home of Trenton, Missouri, after having been away for almost two years. During this visit, I looked at my town with a new perspective–I took a closer look at the lived religion that surrounded me for the first 18 (or so) years of my life.  I was born in Princeton, just 20 minutes outside of Trenton, and moved when I was a toddler because my dad took a job at the high school as a math teacher; my mom worked at the elementary school. Anytime I tell someone I was born in Princeton and lived in Trenton, they think I’m from New Jersey; not quite. Trenton is in rural north Missouri, just 2 hours northeast of Kansas City and only about 1 hour from the Iowa border. Princeton has a population of about 1,000 and Trenton around 6,000, and both are surrounded by corn and soybean fields, a few fledgling cattle farms, and some very large corporate farms. It’s also a very Protestant region–mostly Baptist, Methodist, Assembly of God, and Pentecostal. And just to mix it up, there resides a large Amish community just fifteen minutes outside of Trenton in the little town of Jamesport.

I’ve spoken often of how my personal religious experiences have informed my academic endeavors, but it took this particular trip home for me to realize just how much I have taken for granted the interconnection between rural life and religion in my hometown. Below, I try to tell this story through pictures. I should preface this story with thanking my mom, Marilyn Woodward Bain; my dad, Jack Bain; my sister, Lori Bain Kupsky; and my brother-in-law, Drew Kupsky; for happily driving around with me as I took these pictures over the last few days. My mom and dad reminded me of churches I had forgotten and even took many of these pictures since I was stuck in the very back of the van (things haven’t changed much since I was a kid).

This cross is located on Highway 6 East, right at the entrance to Trenton. It usually comes as a surprise to those who aren’t expecting it since one can only see it when cresting a rather long hill.

This abandoned church is on the street leading to my parents’ (and my former) house–it used to be a grocery store where my mom worked, then it became an evangelical, non-denominational church, then a parochial school, and finally, a storage building. No one has ever wanted to take the cross down. There are a few active congregations in Trenton that have set up shop in abandoned stores–not because of lack of space, like in urban store-front churches, but because of lack of funds to build a church.

I went to the fancy church in town–the First Baptist Church. This congregation previously attended church on Main Street, near the old Union Pacific Depot, but as stores went out of business, the street gradually became vacant, and the church building began to fall apart, the congregation put together a campaign in the late 80s/early 90s called “Building for Tomorrow.” I was pretty active in the campaign, even donating money from my allowance and babysitting work to the project. I also seem to recall being pretty excited about the white pews with light blue cushions, something that caused quite the controversy at the time. My parents still attend this church as well as several friends, one of whom just got married and baptized (which is, true to the denomination’s name, a full dunking) here last month.

This is the “rival” Baptist church in Trenton, called Tenth Street Baptist. I once filled in as their pianist during an evening service, and my parents even attended this church for a few years. There are a few more Baptist churches in this small town, but none of them have the size of congregations that are found at FBC and Tenth Street.

The surrounding countryside has many quaint churches–there are often no paved roads that lead to them, only gravel roads, and there are usually fields, forests, and cattle surrounding these little churches. This is Dockery Chapel, a rural church in between Trenton and the mostly-abandoned rural village of Hickory.

And I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the lone truck parked in front of Dockery Chapel–take a close look at the hitch and you’ll see a striking example of the mundane (or profane??) meeting the sacred.

This was the Baptist church in my dad’s little town, Brimson, which is just a few minutes outside of Trenton. The population has now dwindled to 50 residents. Dad says he remembers attending this church for Bible School and also recalls that there was a rivalry between the Baptists and the neighboring Assembly of God congregation.

Coon Creek Baptist Church has a thriving congregation, despite the fact that it’s impossible to find. There are few sign posts on the maze of gravel roads that one must take to get there; thankfully, my parents grew up in this area and had no problems finding it. My dad’s sister is buried in the adjoining cemetery. Not pictured is the Morton Building that was erected in order to accommodate the growing congregation. Directly below is a photo of the farmland that surrounds this chapel.

Edinburg Baptist Church is only just outside of Trenton, but most people who attend this church are from other, smaller towns nearby. My parents were married here and I remember going to this church when I was a child. My parents told me that I loved the organ music because I thought it made church services sound like a circus.

I think what I have taken for granted the most is the Amish community near Trenton. I still do not give it a second thought when I see a horse and buggy parked in front of the grocery store, and I still find driving behind their buggies incredibly frustrating!

Religion is more clearly lived in an Amish community than in most….their dress, mannerisms, and work habits are closely tied to their religious practices and ideals; while the Amish reject the technological innovations of the modern world, they do not reject the people who use these technologies–Amish and the non-Amish communities surrounding them coexist quite comfortably, as seen in the photos below:

Amish congregations do not meet in a church, but hold services in their homes. Nestled between corn fields is the parochial school, where children meet in a one-room house:

What I took away from this amateur photo-journalism project was this: that religion is not just lived in church, on Sundays, but it is lived everyday, everywhere, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Lived religion is a billboard advertisement inviting you to church; it’s the cross that greets you everyday when you come into town; the Amish farmer who waves when you pass his buggy;  a sign for a revival posted on the bulletin board of a local restaurant; a favorite drive through the country, looking at all the rural churches; the gospel music that plays on the radio every morning; praying before a meal at a favorite diner as the waitress patiently waits for you to finish.

To conclude, I leave you with a picture of one of my last images as I left town today, the end of my hometown and the beginning of the journey back to my temporary home.

“Somethingism”: Religion in Transition


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A few days ago, I read a fascinating article about a growing number of Protestant congregations in Holland that are ostensibly Christian, yet both priests and laity admit that they are uncertain about most Christian theological tenets. For instance, Reverend Klaas Hendrikse of Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland, explains:

“Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death.”  “No, for me our life, our task, is before death.”

Okay, fair enough. So a priest admits that he finds it more important to tell his congregation how to live in the present than expound on the afterlife–a bit unusual, but I would call this heterodox, not outright rejection of God. But wait, there’s more! Rev. Hendrikse has this to say about the nature of God:

“When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.”

The article goes on to say:

Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

His book “Believing in a Non-Existent God” led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.

Behold…I give you an atheist priest!

Surprising, perhaps, but a perfect example of lived religion. Lived religion, in its simplest terms, is religion as experienced and practiced through the regular interactions of both clergy and laity. Looking at religion in this way widens our scope to see how both clergy and laity influence each other, which flies in the face of many approaches that describe Christianity (and other major religions) as an institution that primarily functions in a top-down fashion. This Dutch priest is not just representing his own views about God, but has adapted to the views and needs of his congregation–a hallmark of Christianity and a trait that has contributed to its survival. This religious transition in Holland has led to a new terminology–Somethingism. Here is how one professor in Amsterdam explains it:

“In our society it’s called ‘somethingism’,” he says. “There must be ‘something’ between heaven and earth, but to call it ‘God’, and even ‘a personal God’, for the majority of Dutch is a bridge too far.”

It gets better:

“Christian churches are in a market situation. They can offer their ideas to a majority of the population which is interested in spirituality or some kind of religion.”

The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages knew this full well. Of course, they handled it a bit differently, transforming the papacy into a large, well-oiled machine, a bureaucracy that makes DC look infantile, and saw to it that doctrines were preached regularly in local parishes to ensure consistency in belief and practice. But even in this seemingly top-down scheme, the laity had their say. The most obvious example is the laity who chose heterodoxy or heresy in place of the Catholic bureaucracy’s doctrine; but the laity whom I study, those orthodox laity in late medieval England, found other avenues to express their own particular religious needs. They formed religious guilds; they created and funded shrines for a local saint; they created their own para-liturgical activities that were unique to their village, parish, and church; they competed with other parishes by rebuilding and lavishly decorating their churches; they held fundraisers in order to add more bells to the parish church tower; they politely ignored episcopal visitations. And sometimes they rioted against the clergy if they got in their way, not as a form of rebelling against the entire institution but as a way of claiming ownership over their local church and practices.

This article sees a similar pattern, concluding that:

“The new Christianity is already developing its own ritual.”

But medieval Christians were already in the habit of doing just that. “Somethingism” may be new and somewhat threatening to traditional Christians, but adaptation, through the combined efforts of clergy and laity, is an old, familiar Christian custom.

For the full article, go to <;

Against All Pretenses, I Still “Live” My Religion


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In an earlier post, I claimed that the “personal is academic,” a subtle–perhaps too subtle?–play on the second-wave feminist slogan that the “personal is political.” Today I return to that theme as I work on my personal statement in a second effort to attain full-year funding to work on my project in England. I have a very special hatred for writing personal statements –I know, I know, none of us like writing them. But I have somehow grown into a very cynical 30-something woman (seriously, I look at pictures of myself when I was young and wonder where in the world that happy, optimistic child went) who truly, deeply, intrinsically believes that her story is pretty boring, and I usually think, “who am I kidding? What can a medievalist really offer?” I have friends and colleagues who study genocide in Rwanda, bioethics and modern fertility treatments, religion and politics in Nigeria, and revolutions in Africa and the Middle East. Why do I study what I study?

The easy answer is that I am passionate about teaching–it’s true! Teaching high school often felt like a hazing period in my overall academic journey, but it was worth it to find that although I wasn’t hardwired for classroom management, teaching was definitely in my blood. Being a teaching assistant over the past two years has only been frustrating because I wanted to have my own class, with my own lesson plans, and to interact more meaningfully with the students than TAing allows. Even though I’m a pretty insecure person–my first instinct is to hide from social situations and to avoid being the center of attention–when I get in front of a group of people to lecture or present my work, I forget all about my many insecurities and throw myself into that lecture or presentation, often finishing breathless and tired yet energized at the same time.

But there is a second answer to this question of why I study medieval parishes: I am “living” my religion when I write about medieval grassroots religion.  I may politely refuse to attend the First Baptist Church with my mom and dad and claim that I no longer practice my faith, but my religion is still lived through my studies. This revelation especially emerged when I was reworking my personal statement today, and so I offer my personal statement below to demonstrate just what I’m talking about. And do me a favor–share your stories about what has influenced you in your studies!

Personal Statement

In 2001 I spent two months in London at the Institute for Historical Research and The Warburg Institute. While this opportunity to work in London proved to be invaluable for my work on St. Anselm’s spiritual friendships with women, my most inspiring experiences emerged during my weekend jaunts to small parish churches in the English countryside. The religious cynicism I, like so many, had developed as a teen diminished when I entered these beautifully-preserved late medieval parish churches, where past piety merged with the religious activities of contemporary parishioners.

But I had never dreamed that I would have the chance to personally get to know these parish communities, and yet my dissertation has given me the opportunity to do just that. In a preliminary research to trip to England last autumn, I spent a few days in Wymondham, a lovely village in South Norfolk. I worked primarily in the abbey muniment room in the morning and would spend the rest of the day talking to curates, volunteers, and churchwardens. Since dusk fell over the village quite early in November, the elderly women who greeted visitors would walk around with me as I explored the medieval nave, ensuring that it was well-lit enough for pictures. They were very proud of this nave that had been rebuilt and decorated by the fifteenth-century parishioners, yet at the same time, the side of the church where the monks had once entered was both unlit and used mostly for storage. In just one day I was upgraded from visitor to a familiar face—two churchwardens, along with their trusty dog, greeted me with friendly smiles while lunching at the Green Dragon Pub, which lies directly across from the church. And each evening after I finished my research at the abbey I had the pleasure of sharing a drink at the same pub with the abbey archivist and her husband, who graciously gave me tips on how best to acquire the information I needed about the history of this parish.

 It is often assumed that those of us who work in the archives hole ourselves away from the world, immersed in texts and transcription, but the truth is that many of us study medieval communities to open our hearts to those who seem so far away in time and place and yet lived their religion in ways that are in reality rather familiar to us. Being in Wymondham Abbey brought me closer not only to my medieval subjects but to the parishioners who cherish that space today. I grew up in a small mid-western farming town struggling to survive in an era of corporate farms, and attended a small Baptist church struggling to remain relevant amidst increasing secularism; although as a youth I felt trapped, I realize now that the local church was often a refuge for my neighbors who were just trying to make ends meet. The academic and the personal are not separate projects in my mind—my personal interests and empathy for local religious communities are part and parcel of my doctoral studies.

When I return to England, I plan to carve out a home near Wymondham, making it my base from which I travel to other archives. Thus my project may cast a wide net but my living situation will be localized. Often when I travel in England, I am told that Americans are wasteful, greedy, and forgetful of their past. While I alone cannot change this perception, I do believe that participating in a small English community—learning about its beloved (but underfunded) medieval church, politely entreating to play the church’s organ, attending church fundraisers, becoming a regular at the local pub—can in some small way break down this ideological divide. Ultimately, this fellowship would provide for me a homecoming more so than a year abroad, for I will be brought closer to both the medieval parish communities that inspired this project and to current communities, both parish and academic, who have already expressed support for this scholarly—and personal—endeavor.

Am I an ‘Anti-Feminist’? Thoughts on Agency and Lived Religion


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Just seeing my own title to this new post makes me shudder. What? Moi, an anti-feminist?

And yet, I have made some academic moves that would suggest that I favor focusing my lens on the communal rather than the individual when I study grassroots religion at the parish level. Although gender can still be an important angle in a study of communal religious practice, it can sometimes fall by the wayside in favor of a discussion of community formation, a unity that is created often in spite of difference. Moreover, I have fairly firmly resisted using the word ‘agency’ when I write about the laity who rebelled against the monks who thwarted them in controlling their nave; mostly because I find ‘agency’ to be a term loaded with meanings such as ‘consciousness’, ‘independence’ and ‘liberation’. Agency, when used in this way, removes the laity from the webs of power in which they are acting; Action and intentionality, I find, are more appropriate terms for discussing how the laity and even their local priests lived religion in their parish.

The reason why I ask if I’m an “anti-feminist” is because, due to the approach I described above, someone actually asked me that question! I had always thought of myself as a broken record when I teach, take seminars, or even debate while out drinking with friends, constantly asking: “but what about gender?” I argue with other women regularly when they say we are past feminism, that it is no longer needed, and that it is actually bad for our reputations if we call ourselves feminist. I still wear that label with pride and am disappointed to see just how much we still need to do in the name of feminism while so many women at the same time want to distance themselves from any act or speech that smacks of second-wave feminism. My determination to remain feminist and promote feminism comes in spite of a very cool reception by my fellow undergrads when I was a Women’s Studies minor at the University of Missouri. When I first entered the program, I was married at the time; a young, white, heterosexual married woman who had taken her husband’s last name. I also studied medieval queenship–so I was elitist and incapable of feminism according to not only other students but even other professors. But I still believed in what feminism had to offer, and kept trudging along. When I taught at a private all-girls high school after receiving my master’s degree, I forced my students to think about gender, even when these young women, unaware of just how privileged they were in their education and future job prospects, refused to agree that they were feminists. Feminists, in their opinion, were whiny, hyperbolic, and redundant. All of this came right as I was experiencing the pain of being a new, young, female teacher–I was amazed by what male teachers could get away with. I couldn’t act too smart, because then I was arrogant. I couldn’t be too much of a disciplinarian, because then I was just cruel and not maternal enough. And then there is the new wave of feminists (post-feminists?), who are about my age…agency for them often looks like an episode of “Sex and the City”, hardly the feminism I imagined when I was younger and definitely not a feminism that I even feel is something in which I could comfortably participate (and yes, I know many of you will disagree and please feel free to do so!).

So yes, after about 15 years of actively thinking about feminism and thinking about history and religion through the lens of gender and class (race, too, but in a very different way in medieval studies), I am cautious about how I approach and incorporate it in my work. I am just in the beginning stages of studying late medieval monastic-parochial conflicts, and most of my sources are either in the voices of the community as a whole, the male laity who were leaders in the conflicts, or the clergy who either made court decisions or were from the monastery involved in the conflict. Gender isn’t obvious, but I know it’s there–Katherine French’s work, The Good Women of the Parish, aptly demonstrates how women uniquely contributed to the parish, whether through cleaning the nave, adorning altars with their own clothing, running guilds, and even serving as churchwardens. I also hope to find instances of a monastic-parochial relationships that involve a church shared with nuns, which could offer a different perspective on lay-monastic relations. Since I also study modern memorialization of these conflicts, I know that women have a prominent role in producing church guides and in raising money to save their medieval churches. Gender is always on my mind, but a) I will only start writing about it when it organically enters into my research and b)even when gender does enter the conversation, it does not mean that agency will naturally follow. To discuss women’s involvement in lived religion does not mean that they are conscious, empowered agents, and to say so would simplify the interconnection of institutional power, socio-economic contexts, and a primarily male leadership in the parish.

I am not an anti-feminist nor am I anti-agency. I am a decidedly cautious feminist, perhaps too cautious. But I do contend that lived religion is not just a story about an empowered laity; it is about how the laity–male and female– actively interacted with the clergy who were supposed to guide them in religious practice and belief. To what extent the laity had power over these interactions is difficult to see clearly, even when they’re roughing up the clergy when they fight over the church. It is the complexity about these relations that makes it so interesting–to narrow down the conversation to ‘agency’ runs the risk of ignoring the unconscious maneuverings of the laity within a particular structure of power, one that in many ways determines (yes, a red-flag word) how they maneuver with or against the institutional church.

Part II: Subjectivity is Intersubjective


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The Mellon Symposium on Medieval Subjectivity, hosted by the Medieval Studies Cluster at Northwestern University, ended on Friday; I had hoped to write about the symposium on Friday evening but my travel plans got in the way. Well, that is the easy excuse. The other excuse is that I admittedly find talking and writing about subjectivity to be exhausting!

Vanessa’s and Saralyn’s comments on the previous post are very helpful (I highly recommend taking the time to read them!), particularly in regards to subjectivity as a social and communal construction. I agree with Vanessa and others that I approached communal subjectivity incorrectly…it is impossible to pinpoint precisely how one’s subjectivity is constructed by means of a community, but we can certainly pinpoint how a particular community context informs the construction of subjectivity.

One way by which to think about subjectivity in relation to the social is to talk not just of subjectivity but also about intersubjectivity, which I actually think is the more appropriate terminology. We are not subjective, nor do we think about ourselves as subjects and/or objects, in a vacuum. To put it phenomenologically, we know ourselves in relation to others, and we particularly know ourselves when we also come to know the other. The three-fold ascension posited by Cistercians et al in the Central Middle Ages fits well into this notion of intersubjectivity…to know the self means to be more open to fully knowing others, and ultimately, this subjectivity and intersubjectivity ultimately bring one to know God. Or to relate this notion to the themes of the symposium, intersubjectivity would have been an interesting way to think about, for instance, sexual subjectivity–the medieval authors under discussion were creating sexual subjects according to their own notions of sex, perhaps assigning subjectivity to the women who were expressing their own sexual needs,  but it is important to recognize that those needs are imagined by the authors who are writing those female characters–their subjectivity is not only in relation to the men with whom they have sex but also to their creators.

This brings me to what I found most interesting at this symposium…the relationship between the speakers and their subjects. I recall while studying for my theory exam running across a remark by Pierre Bourdieu in which he claims that subjectivity is simply something that scholars/writers invent in their own personal search for an individual, subjective experience. I suppose this remark seems rather grim for those who cling to a notion of an individual, subjective experience, but I can’t help but agree. For example, when one scholar at the symposium defended the medieval biography as a valid scholarly endeavor, I was struck by just how much this talk was equally autobiographical. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if we do not create our medieval subjects in our own image more often than not. As we follow our subjects in their expressions of self-consciousness, cannot we not help but, in our relationship with them, become more aware of ourselves, too? Is it possible, then, to describe a scholar’s relationship with her subjects of study as intersubjective, and is it perhaps more accurate than simply subjectivity?

Looking forward to your comments!