“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
(Some necessary background, since I guess I neglected to post this bit of news here – I have been an intern at the Worcester Art Museum since the end of May, working with the curatorial team to prepare for the medieval gallery’s re-installation in December 2016)
Sometimes I think taking on this curatorial internship wasn’t the most brilliant idea I’ve ever had – not because it isn’t wonderful (it is! But more on that later…), but because it takes coveted time away from my dissertation. I went into this thinking “it’s only for the summer, it’s a short term loss for a long term gain – this internship just might give me the experience I need to land a permanent non-academic job.” But silly me, even after this acknowledgement, I decided to take up the curatorial team’s offer to stay on until the medieval gallery opens in December – which means taking significantly more time away from a dissertation that is already moving at a snail’s pace. Ugh.
This week, I felt the effects of this dilemma even more keenly. I relished having two full, incredibly productive writing days earlier this week, and somehow I managed to whip my introduction into fairly reasonable shape. It’s still mostly a jumble of notes, but now – huzzah! – it’s a mostly organized jumble of notes! So I was naturally a little bit reluctant to step away from my writing for a full day at the Museum and lose this much-needed momentum. As I drove to the museum and arrived in the mostly-empty museum offices early this morning, I contemplated giving my notice. I need to focus on my academic work, I need to graduate and let my family settle down somewhere lovely and move towards our new future, I need to be DONE. Surely they will understand!
But then I started to dig into my ‘to-do’ pile, and realized that I just plain love this work. Of course there is the practical angle – this is valuable professional development and experience for the CV, yeah. All of that. But this is the crux of why I love it here: I get to immerse myself in medieval history and material culture, engage with art history and conservation for the first time, contribute to producing an amazing permanent gallery, and best of all I don’t have to finagle with syllabi or lesson plans, and I don’t have to grade a single essay! Time management is still a significant challenge, and always will be, but as of today I have zero regrets. This is the kind of work that my soul needs right now.
A Documentary History of Death:
Custom, memory, and literate practices in colonial Ireland, 1272-1307
Dying in medieval Dublin:
Custom, social memory, and literate practices in the reign of Edward I
(highly likely to change again, of course!)
I have been (intentionally) neglecting this wee bloggie because I am pouring every ounce of my focus and energy into writing this dissertation and crawling towards that hazy light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been feeling rather stretched thin lately, so I’ve needed an extended break for my own sanity mostly. On top of recent life challenges and dissertating, I also have one conference presentation coming up (I’m revisiting Arthur’s Avalon for that one!), and more importantly I have to prepare for my UConn Humanities Institute presentation in April. That one has me really nervous!
I do have loads of new updates composed in my head, though, so those of you with ESP may be able to learn what I’ve been up to! In short, the biggest update is my change of focus: I’m stepping away from landscape just a little bit to explore interactions between oral and literate practices in Edwardian Dublin instead (think M.T. Clanchy’s classic study of literate modes applied to colonial Ireland – he is the giant upon whose shoulders I am wibbly-wobbling). Landscape still plays a significant role in all this, but it is no longer the organizing framework for my project. I’m really happy about this change, it has given me new confidence that all the pieces will come together just swimmingly (eventually)!
But, writing any more here means I’m not writing my chapters, so updates will have to wait for a bit. In the meantime, I am posting snippets from my social media post about my recent research trip to the Dublin archives, minus a few personal details. Holding these manuscripts, smelling them, puzzling over them…I felt like a real medieval scholar for probably the first time in my life. It was an incredible experience, and one I hope to write more about when the time is right (with photos!).
Posted 25 January 2016:
I spent the last week and a half immersed in the Dublin City Archives, diligently transcribing from a collection of late medieval civic records known as the Liber Albus Dubliniensis (White Book of Dublin). Really tough work, and mentally taxing, but it also felt pretty amazing to be entrusted with such ancient manuscripts! I learned quite a few things about Dublin, and about myself, along the way:
1) You haven’t really written a proper history of medieval Dublin until you’ve spilled Irish Pale Ale all over your Latin transcriptions. Oh yes, there were pub lunches. The Irish pub lunch will get you through ANY paleographical road block.
2) In Ireland, purple Skittles aren’t grape, they’re black currant. Replacing lime Skittles with green apple rightly sparks international outrage (they are still lime in co. Wexford, for the record).
3) My Latin paleography skills are no longer totally abysmal, only slightly so! There is hope!!
4) When you are the temporary Keeper of the Liber Albus, there are no snack breaks. There are no bathroom breaks. There is only you, and the Liber. And it’s exhausting.
5) Apart from my first semester as a student and teacher at UConn, this was the single hardest task I’ve ever accomplished. I wanted to quit every single day. (But I didn’t).
6) I can’t resist a full Irish brekky. Or a 12th century pub. Full Irish brekky in a 12th century pub? HEAVEN ON EARTH.
7) I was greatly disappointed to discover there are no oompa loompas at the Guinness Storehouse. Who actually makes the stout, then? I still have no idea. But I can now pour the perfect pint! I’m actually certified!
8) Dublin buses are insane. You can get into the city centre, but you can never get out. Which made me feel a bit like Alice in Looking Glass World.
Still here. Still writing. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work I still have ahead of me (complete chapter three, rewrite/revise all other chapters, draft an intro and conclusion, incorporate LOADS of secondary literature) but I am determined to defend in May. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world, I do realize that. But I have been training as a historian for slightly more than a full decade now, and I am so ready to actually start my career. Finding the time to devote to the dissertation has been quite challenging, and that’s why I have neglected this wee bloggie; I have other priorities at the moment. So this is really just a placeholder. I’ll have more to write about after my big research trip to the Dublin City Archives in the new year. I also hope to have some happy job news this spring, but again it’s not the end of the world if it’s simply not the right time for me just yet. My dreams – of finishing up grad school, of launching my real career, of permanently settling my family somewhere that’s just right for us – are still within reach. They may crack a little under pressure, but they will never shatter!
It has been some time since I posted an update. Since my last teaching semester (for the foreseeable future, anyway!) ended in May, I have been diving into chapter three, tackling the tedious work of assembling the most useful sources and evidence before attempting to build a narrative out of them. Certainly not my favorite part of writing, but at least that dreary part is done and I can move on. I’ve decided to devote the next four weeks or so before Baby no. 2 arrives to filling in gaps in my scholarship from the secondary literature – a necessary piece of the puzzle, and long-overdue. Also not my favorite part of writing history, but, sometimes, reading the work of others leads to fantastically productive, creative tangents that completely reshape my own project. Today’s reading, Andy Wood’s fascinating The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Senses of the Past in Early Modern England (read it! you’ll like it!) is one of those works; today, it led me to a potential reorganization of my entire project.
From the start, I’ve wanted to write a dissertation that marries space and landscape theory with medieval record sources; I’ve wanted to tell the story, through a series of case studies of specific Dublin locales, of how rival authorities “governed” death and dying in colonial Ireland (specifically, the reign of Edward I, 1272-1307). Now that I’m deep into my dissertation (two complete chapters), I’m discovering that a spatial perspective may not be the most useful approach to organizing my work; sure, space, landscape, and territoriality are present in the sources, but they seem to be tangential factors in a more expansive story that needs to be told. Andy Wood’s study, focused on lex loci, or legally binding local custom, has made me rethink this spatial perspective as the sole organizing framework of my project. Instead, my dissertation is turning into a story of intersections between a number of factors that shaped death and dying in medieval Ireland: custom, place, memory, literacy, ethnicity, politics, loyalty, territoriality, and civic identity. Studies of Dublin’s public spaces still have a place in this project, but refocusing on these various intersections will produce a more authentic, and I hope more readable, story of a specific chapter in Ireland’s past. Huzzah for progress!
Warning: the following entry makes for fantastically dull reading – it’s really just me working through a major paleographical problem in writing. I’m hopeful that recording every bump in the road of my paleographical project will help me avoid mistakes and misfortunes in my future paleography adventures, or at the very least make my limited time in the archives run a little more smoothly.
So, for those of you following along with my paleography woes, my project is currently in shambles. The trouble I’ve been having is that none of the images I’ve received from the Dublin City Archives (at least the ones I’ve looked at so far) appear to match up with the documents I’ve requested, and this has had me completely befuddled. But, I think I know what’s going on now. Apparently, somewhere along the line in its shadowy past, the Liber Albus Dubliniensis (“White Book of the Dublin,” a compilation of civic documents and memoranda) received a dual pagination system. Many of the images in my collection have a number at the top and a number at the bottom of the page. Presumably, one of these refers to the manuscript’s folio number; I’m at a loss as to what the other number refers to.
The published source that led me to these documents is John T. Gilbert’s Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin. A calendar contains abbreviated summaries of documents in a manuscript, so in order to get the full text of each document I have to view the original – hence my request to the Archives for digital images of the documents that piqued my interest the most. I’m beginning to understand now that the folio numbers that Gilbert gives in his calendar for each document is probably the number at the bottom of each page in the manuscript. The Archives’ photographer, however, followed the numbering system at the top of each page. In other words, when I requested folio 49 (according to Gilbert’s calendar), they gave me folio 14 (which has a ’49’ written at the top). So, it will take some work to sort out which documents I actually have in my possession, and which ones I still need to view – this is probably something that will happen when I finally sit down with the Liber Albus in person in Dublin. The detective work is a little bit fun, I’ll admit – loads more fun, at least, than those awful Latin abbreviations that have been making my head spin.
Okay, so I’ve been freaking out a fair bit about this paleography project. For the past couple months or so I’ve been attempting to transcribe Latin documents from digital images, very kindly provided to me from the Dublin City Archives. What happens is this: I stare and stare and stare at a text, trying to make out one single word, and failing miserably. I’ll spend hours doing this, with nothing to show for it. So I’ve begun thinking that my trip to the Dublin archives to see these documents (wills, certificates of probate, and royal decrees) in person may simply be a colossal waste of time, because the same thing will happen – I will stare and stare and stare, cry a little (okay, a LOT) and go home with nothing to show for it. And this will happen every day, for 13 days. So this has been a major stress in my life.
But I’m beginning to turn things around. Not that deciphering these texts has gotten any easier – on the contrary, the deeper I dig the more frustrated I get – but I’ve decided, upon the advice of good friends, to make the most of my trip outside the archives. I’ll still put in my time with the manuscripts of course, because I have to – the Medieval Academy and Richard III Society gave me a generous research grant to support this work, and I will not let them down – but I am also determined to fully experience all that Dublin has to offer: to eat, drink, shop, walk, live, experience some good Irish craic, explore its last surviving medieval monuments (St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle, the Book of Kells at Trinity College), and adopt this amazing city as my own,
And the manuscripts will be a major part of all that. I’m actually thrilled, and grateful, to have the opportunity to be a “real” medieval scholar, if only for a short time, poring over mss in an archival setting and relishing “the thrill of smelling the parchment and feeling it crackle and bend under your hand” (to quote a fellow medievalist and friend). I WILL NOT let this project defeat me; I WILL come out the other side with some paleographical experience (I’m not aiming for expertise, by any means…) that I can proudly put on my CV, and the knowledge that I have accomplished something with this handful of medieval documents that few others have had the opportunity to view, let alone touch and experience and savor. And I’m going to do this all with “Eye of the Tiger” and “Roar” on repeat – the soundtrack to my research (hey, whatever gets me through this, right?)