Friday, August 29, 2008

Taking stock

This has been a busy week. There was a parental visit and a full-day new faculty orientation on top of the various other stuff I regularly do.

The start of the semester seems more real now due to the orientation. I staggered home from it with my brain full of information and a tote bag jammed full of event schedules, contact information for student and faculty support services, pamphlets on writing and grading, etc. I've also acquired keys to my new office and verified that the bookstore has my books in. Today I finished up my syllabus. So I'm just about ready to go with classes, and I still have a full week to plan class before I need to teach. 

I need to not let teaching swamp the writing and other aspects of my professional life, though. Therefore, I'm going to take stock of my summer accomplishments as well as goals for the fall.

This summer I did the following:

  • finished a conference paper
  • participated in a very lively conference session
  • agreed to co-edit a project which should see print in the spring
  • finished and submitted an article (entirely separate from the conference)
  • began revisions on the conference paper
  • began to think about the paper I'll write after that
  • read assorted & sundry volumes
  • planned my fall course

This fall I'll need to do the following:

  • review a manuscript, as recently requested to do
  • finish revisions on the conference paper
  • do my responsibilities as co-editor
  • submit an abstract for Kalamazoo and work on the ensuing paper
  • apply for jobs (I may submit as few as two applications)
  • teach my fall course

That all sounds reasonably manageable. The hitch is I have two projects out and under submission, and if they come back with revision requests and short deadlines, things could get much more complicated. As things currently stand, I can be satisfied with my summer and optimistic about the next 3 months.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Out of step

All around the blogosphere, people are teaching their first classes or stressing about doing the same. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have a ridiculously long time before the same stresses kick in. At the college where I'll be starting work this fall, classes begin next Thursday (schools typically begin after Labor Day around here). Since the class I teach is Mon.-Wed., I won't actually step into the classroom until the following Monday, two weeks from today.  I do have things to take care of this week: I need to stop at the bookstore and make sure the books are in, I need to pick up the keys to my new office and move stuff into it, I have a new faculty orientation to attend this Thursday. But I feel a little removed from the start-of-semester hustle and bustle. This week I'll take care of those chores, and try to finish off some things from my summer to-do list. Next week, I suspect, I'll start feeling more excited about teaching classes again.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A curious development

Today I received a request to do a manuscript review. For an actual journal, not for a friend.

This has never happened before, and I am not sure why it has happened now. The topic of the article is within my broad field, but does not appear to be in my specialization, so I'm unsure why my name would have floated up as a reviewer. Further, I got the message at my newest email account, the one I have through my new employer. I've had this account all of six weeks or so, and not very many people have the address. Now, my graduate advisor is one of them, so it's possible he suggested me. 

I'm trying to decide whether to agree to do the review. It will need to be done within the next couple of months. As I look ahead, I'm conscious of a number of important chores for September and October. I'm not sure how long this will take; it is only an article review, not a whole book, so it really seems as though I ought to be able to critique it in a day or two of work...?

It is still startling, though, to be viewed as a person appropriate to review someone else's work. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Revision, again

I made a slew of revisions to the liturgy article today, based on comments from a helpful reader. (Thanks!) I hope this will clarify the argument considerably and also explain the specialized vocabulary better. Unfortunately it has probably also gotten longer. 

Helpful Reader also returned comments on the patronage piece, which I haven't gotten to yet, and remarked that it seemed more mature. I found this curious, since the patronage piece was dashed off in a shortish period of time--no more than six weeks, I'd guess, and probably less--before a conference, whereas I've been laboring over the liturgy article for much longer.  On and off for two years, in fact.

It's occurred to me that perhaps that on-and-off process has not helped that particular paper. In revising it I've had to cut repetition regularly, probably due to writing sections at different times. I've had to make the argument come through more clearly, perhaps because I've grown too close to it and have more trouble expressing it clearly.  Perhaps I need to try harder to finish a piece of writing in a short period of time, rather than writing one section, coming back a few months later and writing another, etc.

Readers, feel free to chime in: how to you do your most effective writing? Do you try to finish a draft as quickly as possible, or come back and add to it at intervals, or something else?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Reading for inspiration 3: From Heaven to Earth

Some books make my brain practically spark with thought. Teofilo Ruiz's From Heaven to Earth is one of them. 

I put this book into my stack of things to reread for this project because its discussion of changing Castilian mentalities deals with some similar subjects: property, inheritance, wills, giving of various kinds. In addition, its focus on Castile suggests fruitful comparison with other Iberian regions. Today I went back through the book, and felt well rewarded. Ruiz's argument is complex and difficult to summarize, although the book is short. It comes down to: the 12th-13th centuries in Castile saw major shifts in attitudes about property, sin, and intercession, as people moved from an otherworldly-focused approach to a more down-to-earth practical style. Whereas earlier testators tended to entrust clergy with undifferentiated gifts, he argues, later testators divided up their legacies, using combinations of small gifts, which they expected to be spent for specific purposes. He suggests that charitable giving in particular tends to be performative: money left for clothing 12 honest paupers, for example, is symbolic and ceremonial, related to the donor's ideas about charity and poverty more than about the real needs of the poor.

Since I'm looking at later material, my testators are past this transition, but this is exactly the kind of pattern I'm seeing in 13th- and 14th-century wills and other donations. I'm seeing several variations on the pattern, however, which gives me something to talk about.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sisters in Arms

By popular request, I'm now commenting on Jo Ann McNamara's Sisters in Arms.  Well, OK, not exactly by popular request--but Notorious put in a request, so that's one.  I do try to please my public, small though it be. 

Now over ten years old, this is still an impressive book, and an essential resource for those interested in women's monasticism, not just in the Middle Ages, but from the origins of Christianity right down to the present. Its great strength is McNamara's ability to synthesize a great mass of scholarship on religious women, on extremely diverse periods, and make a coherent whole out of it.  One of its major flaws is the flip side of that: because McNamara is wielding a quite broad brush, at times the book sweeps over variation in a given period.  

The other major flaw is the index.  It's simply not helpful.  Someone apparently decided that this book only needed an index of personal and place names.  There is, therefore, no thematic index at all: if you would like to see where McNamara discusses her favorite theme of syneisactism (roughly, partnership between religious men and religious women), or reform, or sexuality, or virginity, or charity, or...well, you get the idea.  There is no index to help you, you will simply have to hunt through this massive tome yourself.  I've spent more time than I can count riffling through the book, muttering, "I could have sworn she talks about authority and disobedience in here somewhere...maybe it was this other, that's much too late..." etc.

Lacking time to reread the entire book, I concentrated on ch. 9-13, which cover the high Middle Ages (roughly, 1100-1400, here).  These five chapters give an excellent overview of issues in women's monasticism during this period, but don't address my current preoccupations (benefaction and patronage) to any significant degree.  McNamara notes women flocking to join charismatic preachers like Robert of Arbrissel, attempting to affiliate with the Cistercians, forming informal beguine houses, and so forth, but offers few comments on the lay supporters of such houses.  There is, nonetheless, excellent stuff here: the dominant theme is the male clerical hierarchy's desire to separate itself from religious women, while simultaneously regulating the behavior of the women.  One of the chapters is a good discussion of the financial burdens of women's monasteries, another is a fine introduction to female mysticism in the period, and yet another addresses damaging preoccupations with the sexuality of enclosed women (among historians as well as medieval churchmen).  

In short, I remain impressed with McNamara's accomplishment here.  It is hard to imagine a more thorough summation and synthesis of scholarship on religious women, c. 1996.  A revised and updated version would look rather different, since the book has itself helped to establish paths for research in the intervening years.  I only wish it were easier to make use of its wealth of information.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Reading for inspiration, 2

If it had been a while since I'd read Rosenwein, it has been even longer since I read Lester Little's Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy. I seem to recall reading it for my exams in 1999. Although I hadn't read it since then, its argument has definitely stayed with me and had a formative role on my thinking about late medieval religion. His basic narrative of the rise of the mendicant orders is definitely something I've internalized. 

In tracing the development of anxieties about money and new forms of urban religious culture, Little's work here bridges the chronological gap between Rosenwein's 11th-century monastery and my 14th-century monasteries.  In Little's discussion of religous culture, however, he deals in turn with: 1) traditional Benedictine monasteries, notably Cluny; 2) reformed monastic orders such as the Cistercians and Premonstratensians; and 3) the mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans). Each group gets their turn, and then ceases to be discussed further.

The communities I'm dealing with in this paper, however, are Benedictine communities that have survived, and even flourished, despite the arrival of Dominicans and Franciscans in droves. The fact that lay people in an urban environment still supported old-fahioned Benedictine nuns at the same time as they supported mendicant orders, and the poor generally, is one of the themes I'm attempting to deal with in this paper. I'm looking at nuts-and-bolts sorts of issues, looking at everyday acts of support for various causes, which Little's work of synthesis doesn't really address. 

I would note, also, that Religious Poverty doesn't deal very much with women. There is some discussion of the beguines and of St. Clare as a follower of St. Francis. Women belonging to Benedictine, Cistercian, etc. communities don't really appear here. I think the traditional assumption was that women's communities of such orders operated much like men's communities of the same orders, although more recent work in the field tends to argue that women's houses filled different social and spiritual roles than men's houses.

None of these remarks should be considered major criticism of Lester Little; I respect very much what this book does, even though it doesn't answer all my questions. Which is good, after all, because if the questions were already answered I'd have nothing to write.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reading for inspiration

The first of the new stack I've tackled is Barbara Rosenwein's To Be the Neighbor of St. Peter. I'd already read it, but a commenter's recommendation last week reminded me that it might be worth another look. 

Rosenwein emphasizes that the meaning of acts may change even though the forms (such as gifts, sales, etc.) remain the same. This point could serve as a caution against finding parallels between the phenomena she describes and other societies and periods--yet I certainly see a lot of common elements which I think I could meaningfully draw on.

Differences: Rosenwein and I are looking at different regions and, perhaps even more importantly, different periods (she at the 10th and 11th centuries, I at the 13th and 14th). I am looking primarily at women, not at all donors; the female donors and testators I'm looking at lived under a different legal and institutional framework than the men and women of 10th-century Cluny.

But Rosenwein's major themes deal with how gifts and exchanges of property create and reinforce bonds between Cluny and its donors. Those sorts of social relationships seem to me to also exist in the later period, and to be of importance in determining who gives gifts to institutions and why.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Proceeding slowly

Inspiration seems to have dried up in the last week or so. (Plus I took a brief vacation Thursday-Sunday.) I think my subconscious is mulling over how to revise the patronage paper, but has not yet deigned to fill in the conscious mind. To encourage it along, I took out several books from the library on various aspects of medieval patronage, wealth, property, and city life. These are all books I've read before, but some time ago, back in grad school. It should be interesting to revisit them with what I fervently hope is a more mature perspective.