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Resolution.

March 1, 2016

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.

 

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Cracked, but not shattered

December 8, 2015

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!

Rethinking Space & Landscape

July 22, 2015

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!

Shambles!

April 14, 2015

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.

Conquering Paleography with Classic Rock & Katy Perry

March 24, 2015

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?)

Winter Ramblings

March 11, 2015

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

~ William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1

This “winter of our discontent” thwarted my dissertation progress, full-stop. I live in New England, and we were rapidly buried by one major snowstorm after another, which pretty much derailed everybody’s lives. Now, however, the mounds are newly melting, the sun is emerging, and the coming of spring – and just behind it, “glorious summer” – is finally becoming something more than a distant fantasy.

But first, that dastardly wintry period. Weeks would go by before I’d have any time to myself to devote to revising a single paragraph, let alone completing a full chapter draft. My chapter on coroners, which I was on track to finish by the end of January and then send on to my advisors for feedback, still remains unfinished now, in mid-March. Other deadlines (a major fellowship and a book review submission), not to mention teaching prep and  babysitter-less snow days, meant that essentially nothing got done for the entire month of February. I am slowly, slowly getting back on track; spring break is next week (!) and my new plan is to complete chapter two by the end of spring break week. This, I can – and will – accomplish.

But that’s not my only grievance of late; my other major hardship  has been my paleography project. I am attempting to transcribe Latin documents relevant to my first chapter, from stunningly beautiful digital manuscript images, and I’m finding it insanely difficult. Some of the script is just plain illegible – I can’t make out individual letters to save my life – and then, when you throw medieval abbreviations and my abysmal Latin vocabulary into the mix, BAM! – it feels nearly impossible. So I stare at these documents and wait for them to begin to make sense to me, and then I cry a little when they don’t. Seriously, I cry a lot; this is the most frustrating project I’ve ever taken on, and when I work on it I often wish that I had chosen early American history instead. I know I’ll get there; I know they’ll make sense, eventually, but I don’t really want to wait for “eventually,” because in the meantime deadlines loom: a trip to the Dublin City archives to see the originals this summer. So I at least need to know what I’m looking at before I sit down with these documents in the archives and moisten their beautiful, ancient parchment with my frustrated tears. I know this is a vital part of my training as a historian, but I sincerely wish it wasn’t. I’m not a natural puzzle-solver, and this, in conjunction with linguistic talent, I think, is what distinguishes a really successful paleographer from a half-assed mediocre one (like me).

But I should also acknowledge that this mostly demoralizing winter has brought some positive developments as well. Although the job market for historians in academia is fairly dismal, and my chances of snagging a satisfying, tenure-track position in a location I might actually enjoy hovers somewhere around null (I have no illusions whatsoever that this will be an easy, or even successful, venture) I am beginning to realize this: I have zero regrets about embarking on this Ph.D. journey (except maybe the aforementioned paleographical dilemma…). I genuinely love what I do; I love writing about history and playing with words. Coursework and colleagues and teaching have also broadened my world so much, and that’s something I can never regret. Not being able to work on those dastardly, babysitter-less snow days has taught me that I am truly happiest when I am working on my own projects, that I need my work to give me balance, a sense of accomplishment, and a way to keep my mind sharp. Not only that, but my specific project actually excites me; it is something that nobody has done before, it has allowed me to venture down so many fascinating trails, and because of it the city of Dublin has now become an intimately familiar place close to my heart. Wherever this academic life leads me, job or no job, I am grateful for this chance to do what I love to do, and I honestly do not feel that one single day of these past six years has been wasted.

Revelations, Pt. II (but this time they’re the good kind!)

December 7, 2014

A strange thing happened in the dissertation realm in the past two weeks. Somehow, swiftly and unexpectedly, everything has begun to fall into place for my first two chapters. It’s weird and startling and so very satisfying!

Beginning with Thanksgiving week, I’ve enjoyed a beautiful lull in lesson plans and grading students’ essays that has allowed me, for the first time in yonks, to dedicate several days solely to dissertation research and writing. I decided to start a round of editing on my second chapter (on medieval Irish coroners) to try and transform my endless bulleted lists into eloquent non-fiction prose before sending a complete first draft to my advisors. I began with a total revamp of my introduction. My previous post highlighted my many false starts in finding an interesting, arguable thesis for this chapter that actually fits my Irish record sources (rather than the other way around), and as I began to edit the introduction, there it was! As I trimmed the unnecessary verbiage, my argument emerged, previously concealed in a shambles of irrelevant facts and commentary! It was an astonishing epiphany. Now, I can continue editing chapter two to better reflect this new argument; I will shortly have a coherent and cohesive narrative and, most importantly, chapter two will soon be DONE!! HUZZAH!!!

The story of Chapter One’s revelation is a bit different. I submitted my first draft of this chapter (about Dublin’s testamentary custom and the places where it unfolded) in May 2014 (roughly seven months ago, in case math isn’t your particular strength – it isn’t mine). At the time, I didn’t have any kind of identifiable argument whatsoever. I always imagined the argument would simply present itself, fully formed, in a moment of zen-like clarity, and all would immediately be well. This is actually what happened, sort of, except this zenful moment happened to be a lecture by intellectual historian Joel Kaye at UConn’s Humanities Institute. Professor Kaye’s book centers on the intellectual history of the conception of ‘balance’ (equitas and its cognates) and the remarkable innovations and ideas that took place between the 13th and 15th centuries in the realms of medicine, economic theory, and natural philosophy. At least those are the disciplines he focused on; it’s the sort of thing where, once you understand the concept, you’ll actually see it everywhere in medieval texts of every discipline under the sun. One aspect of this new conception of balance was that it was experiential, and lived; it lent order and equilibrium to the public spaces of cities and towns themselves. That was my ‘AHA!’ moment. This idea of balance is exactly what characterizes the relationship between Dublin’s two cathedrals, St. Patrick’s and Christchurch – this is exactly what I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to articulate in chapter one! So, seven months since I abandoned this chapter, I now have a plan for revising it, and I have Dr. Kaye entirely to thank for it. He is my zen master, it seems, and he has earned himself a number of footnotes in my first dissertation chapter. So go on, read his book; it may change your life, too!

These revelations come after a frustrating and intensely discouraging 2-3 week stretch when grading student essays and our babysitter’s vacation meant I accomplished virtually nothing in the dissertation realm. I am insanely excited that they occurred just as we are heading into a nice long break between teaching semesters. It will be a busy few weeks of syllabus planning, fellowship applications, and writing a book review, but at the very least I feel reinvigorated, inspired, and eager to revisit and tweak these first two chapters before embarking on the third (and final!) chapter. Dare I say the end is in sight? It’s a far-off blip on the radar yet, but yes…for the first time perhaps, the expectation that I may actually finish this dissertation in the next academic year, with or without a generous fellowship, seems like a rational and reasonable goal to accomplish – and this feels pretty damn good.