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Eh, detours happen.

May 26, 2014

I’m one day away from my next major milestone: completing the first draft of my first dissertation chapter! I have meandered quite a bit from my original project, as I envisioned it in my dissertation prospectus. Originally, I was going to examine burial spaces in medieval Dublin, analyzing wills to see where citizens chose to be buried, and to find out (as much as the sources allowed) why they chose those particular burial institutions. Now, I’ve actually drafted a chapter on Dublin’s testamentary custom. It isn’t a different track entirely, but it’s nothing like I imagined I would be writing a year and a half ago.

Late medieval record sources attest to a well-developed, legally binding custom for handling testaments that was governed, for the most part, by Dublin’s civic authorities. First, following the testator’s death, wills would be “proved” before the Archbishop’s representatives (or, occasionally, the Archbishop himself) in the metropolitan court in St. Patrick’s cathedral. Next, the will would be publicly proclaimed, or orally “published,” at Dublin’s High Cross, located outside of Christ Church cathedral within the walled city. This would take place on three successive market days. This custom allowed citizens to acknowledge the testator’s will and to contest it, if they had good reason to. Next, a jury of twelve citizens would investigate whether the testator lawfully owned the properties bequeathed in the will. If all was found to be in good order, the jury confirmed the testator’s right to bequeath property to whomever they wanted, according to the city’s “ancient” custom. Finally, the will would be enrolled among civic records in the city’s administrative Tholsel building and dusted off on the occasions (and there were many!) when the will’s administration was contested in court.

Burial doesn’t really factor into the conversation much at all, it turns out. The main reason for this is because wills actually reveal very little of testators’ motivation in terms of burial choice, other than a strong pattern of loyalty to one’s own parish and a preference for Christ Church over St. Patrick’s. The two aspects of burial choice that I did find interesting, and relevant, was 1.) in the long-running rivalry between Dublin’s two cathedrals, Christ Church and St. Patrick’s, Christ Church fought to be the “official” burial institution for the Archbishops of Dublin (it failed); and 2.) citizens had remarkable freedom of choice in selecting their burial institution, independent of the Church or City authorities, and by orally “publishing” their choice (of burial, of executor, of favored beneficiaries, etc.) they publicly asserted their individual liberties (which were also confirmed in a number of civic documents). The scarcity of surviving wills makes it very hard to make broad generalizations about burial choice, and the formulaic nature of medieval wills means that they’re simply not all that interesting. But they do reveal quite a bit about the probate process that took place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and this somehow became the centerpiece of my chapter.

I’m told detours are to be expected in the dissertation process, and as a super-planner I thought I’d be a little more unsettled by the meandering process. But historians must follow where the sources lead, and this is probably the most important lesson that I have wrestled with so far in the writing process. I am,  for the most part, really pleased with where I’ve ended up. I’ve wandered from a history of St. Patrick’s to a narrative of medieval market culture, to a comparative analysis of  St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Eleanor crosses. I think it’s a strong chapter, and I can’t wait to hear what the advisors think of it. Even if it isn’t exactly what they’re looking for, I’m still interested enough in the material to continue with revising; after all, nothing is worse than having to revise a piece that you’re already utterly bored with. In any event, I’m so looking forward to a wee mental holiday to unscramble my brain a bit before I dig into chapter two: CORONERS!

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