I was born in India, and spent most of my time from early childhood until I was in my twenties studying music: I have studied both North Indian and Western classical music (the former quite intensively, the latter relatively cursorily). I studied sitar with Uma Shankar Mishra, israaj, and most extensively tabla (which I studied with B S Ramanna and Shabbir Nisar), and later violin and viola. I started learning German at sixteen, mainly because of my interest in music, but as I got familiar with the language, I became increasingly fascinated by the literature too. After two years of German and six weeks spent in Germany on a scholarship from the Goethe Institut, I began to work as a freelance translator, and I also started teaching music. It became increasingly apparent that for a variety of reasons, life as a professional musician was not for me; and commercial translating, while paying well, was not really the way I wanted to live my life. This realisation led to my move from Delhi to London, where I read German at the Department of German at King’s College, one of the colleges of the University of London (UK) (since then, King’s appears to have become rather more independent; I was one of the last generation of King’s students to get a University of London degree). I had long been interested in medieval history, but at King’s, in the extremely inspiring classes of Martin Jones, I developed a love of medieval literature, and of the Middle High German language. After my three years at King’s, I moved continents again, this time to the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where I was a graduate student for one year. Although I was fortunate to be able to work further on medieval German there with Eckehard Simon, and also to learn Old Norse (with Steve Mitchell) and Latin, and despite the fact that I took part in a wonderful seminar on Kafka with Gerhard Neumann and spent a very stimulating term reading Sebald with Judith Ryan, I felt increasingly that I wished to give myself more of a thorough (and genuinely interdisciplinary) education as a medievalist, rather than as a Germanist with a specialisation in medieval literature. For this reason, after a year at Harvard I moved to the Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto in the fall of 2004, and received my MA in medieval studies the following year; I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation in August 2009. While in Toronto, I took a very wide range of courses, ranging from two semesters of palaeography with Virginia Brown, through Old Norse with Andy Orchard to social and economic history and diplomatic with Nick Terpstra and Lawrin Armstrong, completing a dissertation on early medieval historical narratives in Latin, Old English and Old High German under the supervision of Nick Everett, Sandy Murray, and Andy Orchard. For a detailed list of my publications, awards and professional experience, please look at my CV; there, and on my academia.edu page, you will also find links to some of my published work, referred to below. This page itself, however, is intended more as a narrative of my research interests and influences.
I have tried to maintain an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the middle ages, in which the ‘discipline’ is as important as the ‘inter’; for this reason, I have strived to acquire a thorough grounding in the auxiliary disciplines (palaeography, diplomatics and textual criticism), in historical research of various kinds (cultural, social, economic), and in philology (in the broadest sense, including the study of both languages and literatures). I am concerned, primarily, with trying to understand what I believe to be the fundamental aspects of medieval culture and society. Many of the questions I choose to ask are, in different ways, still relevant today; my interest in the past is, while hopefully not teleological, unabashedly fuelled by a desire to understand something fundamental about human nature, and thus I hope (without wishing to be crudely utilitarian in any way) that a better understanding of medieval people might also provide some wisdom about human society today as well. I was inspired as a teenager by the scholarship of Eric Hobsbawm, Johan Huizinga, and E. P. Thompson, and by the novels of Umberto Eco, and though I cannot claim either any particular affinity with their methods, interests, or approach, nor, obviously, any aspiration to their greatness, something of that inspiration remains with me still, in that I do my best to combine my interests in literature and culture with an understanding of the historical bases of that literature and culture; and I remain deeply interested in the experiences and travails of ordinary people, as I believe it is a responsibility of the historian to ensure that they—the silent majority of the past—are not forgotten in our increasingly unremembering age.
My early inspirations in history have certainly conditioned the directions of some of my own research as well, in particular two long-standing interests, in social and economic history, and in the cultural and social history of death. Economic history is seen as boring by many, I know—but I believe that understanding the basics of human existence is a fundamental part of historical research, and for me, the field is very much derived from the etymological sense of the word ‘economy’: I am interested in understanding how the ‘household’ in the broadest sense, functions. This means that I see economic history as a study not simply of numbers and data, but a means of understanding human social relations and the ways in which these change, since I believe that the ways in which people relate to the material world around them as well as to other people and human institutions condition and shape each other and have a profound effect on (and are affected by) other aspects of human life and striving. Economic history, in other words, can and should encompass all other branches of history, or at least be informed by them—just as other aspects of history must be nourished by understanding of the material bases of life without which the culture of the middle ages could not have existed. Here my inspiration has long been Hobsbawm’s effort to understand the links between economics and culture, or, to put it differently, between base and superstructure. The medieval literature that I love would not have been possible without the economic conditions in which it was produced, not least because for it to be written, the patrons required a certain amount of wealth, and while I have no clue how these things relate, it is surely not a coincidence that the great blossoming of literary culture in the Middle High German Blütezeit took place concurrently with a rapid growth in the German economy.
Although I had been writing coursework on economic history as early as my first undergraduate year, I had no clear sense of how to approach this interest until I took a graduate seminar taught by my predecessor in my currrent post, Lawrin Armstrong, on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism, it is commonly thought, has either always existed, or is in some manner the necessary telos of historical progress. Particularly since the early 1990s, this view has dominated in history and the social sciences, and has only recently begun to be challenged even in relatively orthodox fora. But unless capitalism is understood as synonymous with trade and profit—in which case the value of the term requires justification—it is a historical development, not a universal given; and like other historical developments, therefore, there was nothing inevitable about it. My work as a graduate student led me to question the most influential but now outdated theory of Robert Brenner regarding the origins of capitalism in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century rural England, as well as the notion of English exceptionalism well-entrenched within the Anglophone historical profession, and nowhere more so than in economic history, within which field it has rarely even been challenged by scholars from other linguistic and cultural backgrounds. My work on this subject led me down three related but discrete paths, two more theoretical and one more empirical, that have resulted in a number of publications and two research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of the Government of Canada (for the years 2015–17 and 2018–23).
The first two of these ways of approaching the topic are the more clearly theoretical, comparative, and wide-ranging, and were the focus of my research during my first four postdoctoral years, at the University of Leicester (2009–10), and then at Magdalen College, Oxford (2010–13). In the first paper I completed on economic history—published in 2016 in the leading journal of agrarian studies, Journal of Agrarian Change—I directly addressed the inadequacies in Brenner’s theory and demonstrated it to be incompatible with the empirical evidence for English rural history. This insight in itself was not particularly original, as the empirical scholarship on this topic abounds, even though relatively little has chosen to view the topic of agrarian history from the lens of a history of capitalism. Brenner, however, had anchored his argument in a comparison of England with other regions of Europe, and none of the empirical work on English rural history that had shaken the foundations of his theory had bothered to do this; nor had any other work attempted to adumbrate any new arguments regarding the socio-economic formation that prevailed during this period. My paper carried out a thorough comparison of English and German rural history for the period c.1200– c.1800, and showed that in many respects, at the regional level, there were great similarities: the monetisation of rents, the proliferation of markets, the stratification of rural society, the preponderance of smallholders and landless without access to sufficient land for subsistence, and the concomitant rise in market involvement and market dependence were certainly comparable and followed a similar temporal trajectory as well. Yet it would be wrong to characterise the German rural economy of this period as truly capitalist—and I argued that it would be equally wrong to do so with regard to England. Immersing myself in the empirical and theoretical literature on this subject, I became increasingly convinced that for the development of capitalist societies—as opposed to isolated instances of capitalist individuals or firms—an ideological shift was necessary: productivity, rather than production, and its goal of profit-making rather than satisfying needs, had to be raised to universal and absolute positive values and the rationale for markets, rural primary production, and manufacturing. And this shift can only be observed as having much traction in the last decades of the eigteenth century, in Germany and England alike.
Increasingly, I became convinced that while understanding the origins of capitalism—and the potential alternatives to it—remains crucial, understanding commercialised but non-capitalist societies is even more important, and for two reasons. The first is that commercialisation and market dependence represent a fundamental and relatively recent change in the way humans relate to nature: from being a society primarily of producers working with the environment and its produce, we have become a society primarily of consumers, mostly removed from any interaction with our natural environment and treating it distantly as the resource that satisfies our desires and needs; this would not have been possible without commercialisation. The environmental—and ethical—consequences of this shift do not need to be spelt out. That said, it would also be worth examining whether a commercialised society could have any potential to be something other than a capitalist one: whether it might be possible to have the benefits of specialisation and markets without being enslaved to the false god of growth, with the catastrophic effects that we live with today. Thus, by the time I concluded my tenure as postdoctoral fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, I was left with a number of further avenues for future work: a closer analysis of how, when, and why this ideological shift took place; a more thorough examination of the common processes of commercialisation in the rural economies of Germany and England; and, based on the latter, the search for a way of comprehending highly commercialised and diversified economies that were not capitalist, and need not be understood as necessarily leading to capitalism.
Related to these issues, however, is a larger debate exceeding the bounds of European economic history. While the discussion about the origins of capitalism was one of the major topics in economic history in the 1980s, since 2000 the most important and productive debate in the field has been on the ‘Great Divergence’, or, as the title of one of the more significant contributions to this debate has it, ‘Why Europe grew rich and Asia did not’. My first intervention in this debate, a review essay published in 2015, argued that two fundamental components had thus far been largely lacking in the scholarship: a consideration of culture and ideology and their influence on divergence, and the problem of the origins of capitalism. It is reasonably clear that many regions across the Eurasian land-mass (and possibly elsewhere too, though there has been far too little research on other continents) had developed, in the period c.1200–c.1800, comparable and in many respects similar socio-economic systems that included regimes of specialised production, market dependence, and thus commercialised societies—without, however, as yet being driven by an ideology of profit and growth. I suggested that what needed to be studied further was therefore whether and where and when such an ideology came into being, and what influence it did or did not have on economic growth and change. Such study could also help us reconfigure our notions of what markets and commercialisation might or might not cause in terms of consequences: perhaps elsewhere there might be evidence for commercialised but not profit- and growth-oriented societies that could allow for an equilibrium. This research is, obviously, fuelled by hope (which I am sad to say seems increasingly less likely to be fulfilled): equilibrium is what we desperately need now, and finding it in the past could give us something to think with as well as the hope that if it was possible then, perhaps once again it might be achieved, however different the means and structures would have to be now.
As a prerequisite to such research, however, much more empirical work is needed to ascertain the extent and nature of commercialisation in any of these economies, and so over these years I took up the second of my avenues of research arising from my paper on capitalism: making a beginning at a rigorous empirical understanding of rural commercialisation in late-medieval Germany, a topic that had—in contrast to the commercialisation of medieval English society—never been the subject of scholarship. In 2014, I published a detailed study of the estate survey of Ellwangen from the middle of the fourteenth century in Agricultural History Review, the leading journal in the field of agrarian history in English; in 2017, I published a paper on the fourteenth-century manorial accounts of Scheyern abbey in the leading German journal of economic history, Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. In both of them I was able to provide a basic statistical underpinning to the argument that commercialisation in the countryside had progressed significantly in Germany by this point already. England, unlike Germany, has benefitted from generations of careful, statistically-grounded studies of rural economies and the progress of commercialisation; Germany, it has long been thought, does not even provide sufficient sources for such study. From my papers on Ellwangen and Scheyern I developed a long-duration project to study rural commercialisation in southern Germany, which was first funded first by an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of the Government of Canada (SSHRC; 2015–17) that enabled me to travel to Germany to collect archival sources. During my visits to these archives in 2016 and 2017, I was able to digitise over 15,000 pages of relevant source materials—estate surveys, accounts, and lists of rents of various kinds—and discovered, moreover, a massive and largely untapped source base for rural economic history comprising some 50,000 pages of documents for the period c.1200–c.1500. By far the bulk of this material has never been subject to scholarly analysis of any sort beyond that necessary for archival purposes (and in many cases even that has not been attempted seriously); almost none of it has been examined with a view to addressing my research questions, or anything comparable to them. My work on these sources has resulted in an article that describes this source base for the use of other scholars, and also discusses the methodological problems posed by these texts and some of the ways in which they might be overcome. This paper has just been published in Mediaeval Studies, one of the few remaining journals that continue to publish fundamental research tools. (For a pre-print version, see here.)
A further fruit of my work on these sources was that I could now propose a much larger project for a SSHRC Insight Grant, which I was awarded for five years (2018–23), which examines commercialisation in southern Germany for the period c.1200–c.1440. The objectives of this project are (i) to track the changes in the extent and nature of socio-economic differentiation, market involvement and market dependence, and the relationships between commercialisation and ‘feudal’ social-property relations; (ii) to compare this region with England, which—it is now generally accepted—experienced widespread commercialisation in this period ; and (iii) to provide, on the basis of the foregoing, a more thorough comparative and theoretical analysis of the causes, nature, and long-term consequences of rural commercialisation in medieval Germany as compared with England. The scope of this project, while founded on (partly statistical) analyses of a wide range of sources, also includes a theoretical dimension seeking to address the following questions: what does commercialisation mean in terms of economic, social, and cultural change? How does German commercialisation relate to comparable processes elsewhere in Europe and how does European commercialisation relate to comparable processes elsewhere in the world? What is the nature and dynamic of highly complex commercialised pre-capitalist economies, and how do they relate to the rise of capitalism?
This leads me back to the broader and even more comparative interests in economic history mentioned above, regarding the origins of capitalism and the ideological shift that I identify as a prerequisite for its evolution. I have continued to think about and publish some work on these broader issues in the context of further interventions in the ‘Great Divergence’ debate, in the form of a very lengthy review essay in Modern Asian Studies that the editors of that journal felt was suitable to publish along with a rejoinder by the author of the reviewed book and my response to that rejoinder; and a more theoretical review essay of a book in India, modernity and divergence, published by Historical Materialism, one of the principal journals of Marxian historical analysis and theory. In the former paper I made a strong case for more research on the pre-colonial economies of South Asia understood on their own terms as highly commercialised systems, without preconceived notions of ‘potentialities’ for capitalist growth—or a lack of them; in the latter, critically responding to the book I reviewed, I set out a first attempt at defining the culture of aspirational consumption and the ideology of growth that I argue are the prerequisites not necessarily for modernity, but for the specifically capitalist modernity we live in today.
My work in this field has, over the past three years, attracted some attention in Europe: in 2017 I was invited to present my research at at a conference of the Swiss Gesellschaft für ländliche Geschichte (Society for Rural History) at the University of Zurich and at a workshop organised by the German Historical Institute London, as well as at the guest lecture series on medieval history at the University of Cologne. In 2019 I was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on pre-modern rural market production and infrastructure at the University of Göttingen. In all cases I considered varying theoretical and methodological issues related to my research; in all cases I was the only scholar from a non-European university to be invited to speak. Also arising from the more theoretical dimension of my work was an invitation by the editor of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘Debating world history’ series to publish a volume on the Great Divergence in that series; after review by three readers, my proposal was accepted, and I am contracted to submit the manuscript by July 2021.
Economy and society, then, comprise one aspect of my research; cultural, intellectual, and literary history is the other, and here, my main foci have been Middle High German literature, principally the work of Wolfram von Eschenbach; Old Norse literature, mainly the Edda and the Old Norse kings’ sagas; and related to the last topic, medieval historiography and the uses of the past(s). My primary interest in Middle High German literature remains the period known as the Blütezeit, and of the authors of this period, my main focus is on Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wolfram was one of the most widely received authors of medieval Germany, and his works have long been considered fundaments of the MHG canon and the focus of the careers of some of the most prominent scholars in the field for almost two centuries; Wolfram’s Parzival has exercised a significant influence on German literature and culture beyond the medieval period as well, most prominently in Wagner’s opera Parsifal.
My first publication was on Wolfram’s Willehalm, a work of hybrid genre concerning religious conflict between Christians and Muslims; this paper appeared in 2003, shortly after I had completed my undergraduate degree. I examined here Wolfram’s ideas regarding religious difference (specifically, the differences between Christians, Muslims, and Jews) against the background of contemporary theological thought, and contributed to the growing body of work demonstrating how Wolfram was heavily influenced by theological ideas of his time, but nevertheless articulated a vision of the world that was more grounded in the realities of everyday life—without being completely overwhelmed by the ‘worldly’ concerns of the courtly context in which his texts were received. Religious conflict, I argued, was tempered by a rare acknowledgement of the similarities between these religions, and the kinship of their adherents as creations of God. My third published paper returned to Wolfram, this time to his Parzival, and appeared in 2008 in one of the most prestigious journals for German literary and cultural studies, the Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. This is, to my knowledge, the first paper to have been devoted to the figure of Condwiramurs, the wife of the eponymous hero of this text, on whom it is now the definitive study. Here, apart from providing a detailed analysis of the significance of Condwiramurs for the narrative, I also examine Wolfram’s reactions to social and religious currents of his time, including the notion of holy war and religious knighthood. The plot of Parzival is multifarious, but the fundamental concern driving it is the effort to gain God’s grace within the world; in medieval terms, the effort to be good without retreating into a spiritual life, and this paper was my first attempt at demonstrating how Wolfram treats the striving towards this goal, and how the character of a perfect woman, and the marriage to her, further its achievement by the hero.
Although my research has largely moved away from literary topics, Wolfram has remained an active interest, and I am currently completing a longer paper on Parzival addressing this topic more directly: how does Parzival attain the kingship of the Grail, an achievement dependent on God’s grace; and what, therefore, is the religious import of this text, particularly with respect to the relationship between human understanding of and striving towards goodness, and the rewards that may be attained from such striving? This paper has been rather delayed by the fact that my co-author (Martin Jones, who retired from his post at King’s College London in 2009) suffered a serious illness while also attempting to write a comprehensive guide to MHG for Oxford University Press; thankfully, he is now again healthy, and his other project has been completed. We are again at work on the paper and have produced an almost final draft, so we envisage the publication of this article before the end of 2021. Also along with Martin Jones, I am planning a monograph on Wolfram’s Parzival that will serve as an introduction to the text for students at all levels, and for scholars in cognate disciplines; this will be the first introduction to this work in English since Hugh Sacker’s monograph of 1963, and we hope to complete it within the next three or four years, Martin’s health and both of our other commitments permitting.
I retain therefore my interest in Middle High German literature, primarily Wolfram, but also in the works of Gottfried, Hartmann, Walther and Heinrich von Morungen, in particular in the ways in which these secular authors formulated what I like to think of as a ‘lay theology’: an idea of God and His relationship to the human world that was not identical to the theology of the schools and the theologically trained elites. Whether or not there are any common elements in the ideas enunciated by these authors, which join them in their difference from clerical theology, is something I am as yet uncertain about; even less certain is whether their views on the subject may be taken as representative of the courtly milieu in which they worked. Nevertheless, they provide as close a glimpse into the lay piety of around 1200 as we can get, and thus my work on the Middle High German Blütezeit is linked, in its themes, to my overarching interest in the religion of the laity in the Middle Ages.
If my interests in literature and history seem to be quite schizophrenic, with no real interdisciplinary bridge, my doctoral dissertation genuinely did, I think, straddle the disciplinary divides across which I try and work. If my research on Wolfram was driven by two fundamental questions—how to be good? and how to be good to people who are ‘other’?—my doctoral work was motivated by a further, only slightly less fundamental and also related question: how to define who is ‘other’, and what does that mean in terms of defining oneself in a collective sense? This research was motivated both by a fascination with the relevant texts and the importance of these questions in scholarly debates, and equally by my own evolving sense of identity as an immigrant from India with a Canadian passport in an overwhelmingly white profession, educated wholly in English and speaking German more fluently than any Indian vernacular. My identities—professional, national, cultural—are multiple and cannot be reduced to simple binaries of race, ethnicity, or nationality; in the context of Toronto in the early twenty-first century, this is entirely normal. But this normalcy is also most often, in this context, a result of individual choices, and is fashioned in the present, without, however, communities of immigrants generally forgetting the pasts that they came from. In pre-modern as in modern societies, a sense of collective identity depends to a very large extent on the understanding and interpretation of the past, and large-scale migration tended to be collective rather than a concentration of individual choices; while the past of ‘there where we came from’, in a very real sense, even now creates who we are in the present, by informing us about how we became this group in this place with this particular set of characteristics, this was arguably even more the case in many contexts in medieval Europe. The subject of ethnic identity in medieval Europe has long been debated, and often with a vim that exceeds normal scholarly rigour and reaches into polemic and worse—not least because many modern European nations find the roots of their cultural identity in the medieval past. In particular, the period between c.400 and c.700 has been the focus of much scholarly—and frequently acrimonious and less-than-scholarly—discussion concerning the culture and sense of identity of the so-called ‘barbarians’ whose polities succeed Roman imperium in western Europe in these centuries.
One of the most prominent voices in this debate was that of Walter Goffart, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Toronto from 1960 until his retirement in 1999. Goffart’s path-breaking 1988 monograph, The narrators of barbarian history, famously and controversially used tools derived from literary theory and the study of modern history to argue that the ethnic past that modern scholarship has tended to find evidence for in the texts of early medieval historians was in fact constructed by those historians, using literary techniques, derived frequently from written sources that were often about wholly other peoples, and not dependent on any kind of vernacular and native oral tradition. Goffart’s work, and that of many of his students (including Alexander Callander Murray, recently retired from the University of Toronto and the co-supervisor of my doctoral dissertation) excited much unrest in the world of early medieval scholarship, which was for the next few decades often seen—by outsiders and by the participants in this debate themselves—as starkly divided into two schools: that of Goffart or Toronto, which sought to deny the existence of any Germanic, or indeed (in some versions) barbarian culture(s) independent of written and Roman tradition, and the Vienna School, which claimed that identity was deeply rooted in vernacular narratives of the distant, pre-Christian, non-Roman past, the evidence of which survives in written Latin histories and occasionally in written vernacular narratives from much later periods.
I entered this field with an article—my second publication, which appeared in 2007 in one of the oldest and most prestigious journals devoted to medieval Germanic literature and culture—on the origins of the legend of the Burgundians and their fall, which forms the core of the narrative that later informs the MHG Nibelungenlied, the Old Norse Edda, and ultimately Wagner’s Ring cycle. The historical Burgundians in question lived during the fifth century, and are very laconically attested in contemporary Latin chronicles; the evidence of the legend of their fall exists primarily in vernacular works from around 1200 or later. It has long been a commonplace in literary scholarship that the material brought to parchment in this later period was derived from oral tradition going back to the events described; what has never been agreed on is precisely how this material survived and changed, and in what language—and why, given that the Burgundians lived in south-eastern France and no Germanic language is attested there from at the latest the early sixth century, narratives about them should have survived and been borne through an oral tradition almost exclusively in Germanic languages in regions much further north. My research excavated the evidence for oral tradition concerning this legend from the fifth to the ninth centuries, and argued for a minimalist revision of the scholarly received opinion: we do not know the nature of the oral tradition, nor the function it served; and the only reason the narrative survived in later Germanic languages must have been an early transfer on the basis of linguistic similarity, rather than any kind of common culture that was particularly Germanic in any non-linguistic sense. We cannot, therefore, use early Latin chronicles and later vernacular narratives to recreate any oral tradition in any Germanic language, and neither set of sources can be used to inform the other in any truly meaningful manner.
My dissertation (defended in August 2009) followed on from this research, and resulted eventually in a monograph, Writing the barbarian past: studies in early medieval historical narrative, published by Brill in 2016 ((click here for a pdf of the introduction). Despite the similarity of title and topic to Goffart’s classic study, and even though a large portion of this work examined two of the same texts he did (the Gothic history of Jordanes, and the Lombard history of Paul the Deacon), my conclusions were quite distinct, and made every effort—successfully, I hope—to conform to neither the Vienna or the Toronto paradigm. It was my hope to synthesise the best of these approaches and find a middle ground, and I trust that I have annoyed hardline adherents of each school sufficiently to have fulfiilled my purpose. My dissertation brought together analyses of Latin histories conventionally studied mainly by historians and also used by literary scholars searching for evidence of a Germanic oral tradition with the core content of narratives that would late surface in the Germanic vernaculars, and studies of literary texts also containing such narratives but not generally supposed to be ‘history’. I argued that if we seek to understand the historical consciousness—the approach to and understanding of the past on the part of a particular collective—any texts dealing with that past should be an object of study, and the dichotomy between ‘history’ and ‘literature’ imposed by modern disciplinary boundaries makes little sense. My work studied precisely those narratives of the pre-Christian, non-Roman past that had been adduced to point to a sense of Germanic, ethnic, or barbarian identity (often all three), and I concluded that the distinctions between Germanic or barbarian, and Roman, and between Christian and non-Christian, have meant much more to modern scholars than to the peoples they have studied. The texts were, I demonstrated, for the most part more an effort to reconcile these different elements of identity without erasing pasts that were felt to be valuable in constituting the identity of the (in each case post-imperial but Romanised and Christian) present than attempts to perpetuate any sort of clear, binary distinctions; and they must be understood in this way, as people generally do have multiple forms of identity. I argued further, however, that there was no common ‘Germanic’ culture unified by any kind of cultural practices which were not also shared by other peoples who have never traditionally been thought of as Germanic; nevertheless, there is evidence to show that narratives were indeed carried across cultures and over time, by oral tradition in various vernaculars.
My work on these subjects was recognised relatively soon after the publication of this monograph in the form of an invitation to contribute to an edited volume in Brill’s ‘Reading medieval sources’ series, Origin legends in medieval Europe. Here I revisit the subject of my 2016 monograph, providing a more theoretical introduction to origin legends, but also refining some of my arguments as appropriate, based on more recent scholarship. Submitted and accepted in 2019, this contribution should appear in print in 2021.
My other work on medieval historical narrative has also focussed on the question of identity—albeit in scholarly contexts that are less fraught—and how it is created, maintained, and distinguished from the identity of others. In 2011, I published with Brill my first monograph, Kings’ sagas and Norwegian history: problems and perspectives. Here I addressed the fact that the kings’ sagas—narratives about Norwegian kings written mainly in Old Norse between c.1150 and c.1250—are extant primarily in six texts all of which tell more or less the same stories about the same kings, while often remaining distinct in matters of detail and their treatment of sources. Much of the narrative is said within these texts to be derived in some manner from orally transmitted verse, often composed by Icelanders. Because of the overlap between these texts, the vast bulk of the scholarship on them until the 1990s had been devoted to determining the textual relationships and trying to illuminate the texts’ sources. Surveying the prior two decades of research that had begun to focus on the texts’ content, I examined the nature of the relationship between supposedly ancient verse said to have been composed at the time of the events reported and later prose; the possibility of influence from non-Scandinavian sources; and the value of this past in the present in which it was written. I demonstrated here that there is in fact normally very little relationship between the verse and the prose, and even the verse could easily have been composed much later than claimed: the past was, therefore, very much a construction of the present, for present purposes. I showed further that the possibility of influence from various Latin sources and traditions of historical writing was also much greater than is normally assumed. Therefore, I concluded, these works are of great interest primarily not with regard to the past of which they tell, but in order to understand the present in which they were produced—a present in which an independent Iceland that had been settled from Norway was increasingly coming under threat of being re-absorbed by Norway, now ruled by an increasingly centralised kingdom inspired more and more by continental forms of rulership. Given that some of these texts were almost certainly produced by Icelanders, the question of identity becomes more fraught, and it is clear that even within groups that might represent themselves as a collective—Scandinavians abroad appear to have been quite happy to group together—among themselves at home there were efforts both to erase differences, and to maintain them. (I am, in Canada, ‘Indian’, just as many third-generation Canadians are ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’; as tourists in southeast Asia or Africa, we are all ‘Canadian’.) Despite or because of the fact that this book ruffled many feathers because of its unorthodox position and cheerful—indeed insistent—acceptance of our ignorance and the fact that this ignorance cannot be altered, it has now become a standard work cited ubiquitously in scholarship on kings’ sagas, on the relationship of verse and prose in Old Norse, and on Norwegian and Icelandic historical consciousness in this period.
A thematic bridge between my work on historical narrative and the question of collective identity, and my earlier research on relations with those who do not belong to this collective identity, is represented by an article I published in 2012 on the historiography of the Baltic Crusades. Less well-known than the military expeditions to the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades were in many respects constitutive of the cultural and political landscape of the whole of the Baltic region into the twentieth century, as it was over the course of these events that German became the dominant language of the urban merchant classes, who lived in what could reasonably described as a quasi-colonial relationship with the peoples speaking Baltic or Slavic languages cultivating the land for the produce which was traded abroad by the German merchant class. I examined here the two principal narratives from the thirteenth century, one in Latin prose, and the other in MHG verse, both produced from the perspective of the Christian and largely German crusaders; and I showed that—unlike in Wolfram’s Willehalm, which remains something of an outlier in this respect—both the Latin work written by a priest, and the vernacular work written most probably by someone not a cleric, presented the contact as mostly violent, and did not shy away from demonising the opponents. Both works, however, also equally presented the motivations of the Christians from the west as being equally secular and mercantile, rather than just religious.
My published and ongoing research over nearly two decades has thus been characterised by three main foci in terms of method, approach, and issues: keen attention to textual evidence and philological rigour; an insistence on the importance of accepting ignorance because of a lack of evidence as preferable to the creation of arguments intended to fill gaps in the evidence; and an engagement with fundamental questions, to which even my more focussed, empirical work always refers, even if the attention in individual publications is more on matters of detail regarding specific sources. I have mentioned many times an ideological shift as a prerequisite for the growth of capitalism, and in closing, it might be well to define slightly more clearly what I mean by this, and how, therefore, the questions of commercialisation and the origins of capitalism bring me back to the fundamental issues with which I began my publishing career: how to be good; and how to understand and be good to others, however they are defined. I can do so most cogently by citing my own work, one of the over 40 reviews and review essays I have published in the past decade or so:
At its most basic level, a market is a locus of exchange, which enables people who need or desire certain things that they themselves do not produce to acquire these goods from others. The moral issues involved with markets begin to become complex, and the question as to what a market is for may become acute, in situations where value cannot be readily ascertained, particularly when the sellers are not producers but middlemen, but also in the case of producers, in particular where there is a marked difference between the price of the raw materials and that of the finished product. Exchange through the medium of such intermediaries between the primary producer and the final consumer inevitably raises the issue of the extent to which such people may profit from the needs of others, and indeed even the extent to which it might or might not be just for them to enjoy a better living than those who buy from them, at the cost of the latter’s ability to acquire, cheaply or at reasonable cost, things they need in order to live. If the function of the market is considered to be the enabling of the population to have access to things it needs, the perception of the morality of the market might well be different from a situation in which the function of the market is seen, at least in part, as enabling those who trade in it to make a profit; the very concept of profit is itself morally fraught, since it is not always clear whether it is the same as making a living, or whether it may also, from a moral point of view, permit making a good deal more than just a living. Such a divergence between perceptions of market morality might be particularly exacerbated in times of dearth, when those with wares to sell might easily be able to make a higher level of profit by charging higher prices, to the great disadvantage of those in need but without sufficient funds. A further complication with moral implications arises with the matter of credit, since many transactions, in pre-modern as in modern markets, were not paid for immediately; how much may the creditor reasonably gain from the risk he or she takes on, and to what extent is profiting from extending credit to those who need the goods for which they require credit, and are too impoverished to pay upfront, a moral problem?
These, then, are the primary moral concerns arising from the development of a commercialised society. To these we should be add the additional concern regarding on the one hand the exploitation of others, whether human, animal, plant, or mineral, for the sake of subsistence or profit, and on the other hand, how or whether the moral problems regarding such exploitation are affected by a transition from a commercialised to a capitalist society. The ideological shift that, I believe, triggers such a transition and thus brings these issues more sharply into focus is one in which profit, rather than the satisfaction of need, becomes the prime motivator for economic activity, and thus the economy and indeed the study of it, become artificially divorced from any notions of morality. As I said in the same review,
there really has been a great shift in terms of the way the modern theorists of the market (economists) see its relation to morality when compared to their medieval counterparts (generally theologians, or at least people with some theological training; inevitably people subscribing to a religious moral framework). There is surely some significance in the fact that with very few exceptions ([Amartya] Sen being the outstanding one), economists are no longer moral philosophers, let alone theologians.
Parzival, in Wolfram’s epic, tries to attain and maintain honour in the world, while also gaining God’s grace; in Willehalm, the principal question is how to recognise and respect the kinship of God’s creation. One does not have to be religious to realise that in the present moment, there is a great need to acknowledge and respect the kinship not just of humans across nations and societies and cultures, but also of the kinship between ourselves and other animals and the very planet on which we live. Without such acknowledgement, we shall remain on a path to destruction, both of society and nature as we know it, and of the very quality that makes us human: our ability to try and differentiate between good and bad. Our lives are driven by economic paradigms that valorise profit and growth and supposedly run on ‘natural laws’ without reference to morality, like the laws of physics. This is a fallacy that research in the humanities has a responsibility to expose, defy, and overturn, so that the humanities can return us to considering what it means to be human and what it means to be good—and help us achieve a means of being good and not destroying ourselves and the world we live on.
While my research as a whole targets fundamental questions, it does not attempt to provide anything like real answers to them; I do not believe this is the ultimate purpose of research in the humanities, since the big questions are not amenable to definitive answers (though smaller questions are, and addressing them helps to pose the bigger questions in better or more interesting and productive ways). I believe that I have, however, managed both to raise important issues, and cumulatively through my research to consider on a broad canvas questions which are at the basis of what we, as scholars and humans, are and do. My research has and continues to be an effort to understand responses to the human condition in the past, and in particular in its interface with my teaching, to imagine ways in which that understanding might help us work towards a better future. To adapt Edward Said’s words with regard to music, in my practice, both research and teaching on the medieval past, broadly defined, thus become an enterprise not primarily or exclusively about more or less teleological authoritative narratives of the past becoming the present, but a mode for thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, non-coercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean, attainable, knowable, possible.
My research, then, has encompassed a range of subjects and sub-fields within the broad spectrum of medieval studies; my teaching has been (and will hopefully continue to be) similarly wide-ranging. At Oxford, I taught both for the Faculty of History and the Sub-Faculty of German, and my teaching ranged from a first-year introduction to economic history through an upper-level survey of the central middle ages and a specialist course on the Carolingians to Middle High German and Old High German literature, Middle High German language classes, and an introduction to Old Norse.
The graduate programme at CMS is founded on training in the core philological and technical skills required to access the primary (and primarily textual) sources pertinent to the study of Latin Europe roughly within the period c.500–c.1500. Within the Department of History too, although particularly in more modern fields a number of different approaches are used, the discipline remains principally based on the sensitive reading of texts. My appointment in 2016 was to replace both Lawrin Armstrong, whose core teaching responsibilities were Latin and Diplomatics (both of which now fall to me), and whose research was a combination of philology and Marxist theory in the field of economic history, and Joseph Goering in History, whose research was equally founded on a close reading of texts. It is no coincidence, therefore, that I approach teaching in the first instance as a mode of collaborative reading, in which students are aided by the greater experience of the teacher, but which is still a discovery for all engaged in this act, the teacher included. At all levels of teaching, I encourage students to formulate their own ideas about the material they study, and be critical of the scholarship they read—as well as of my own positions if need be. In my teaching, as in my research, I combine rigorous philological attention to language and text with a constant effort to gain a wider understanding of the social and cultural contexts within which the evidence that we use as historians was produced.
The close reading of texts is not, however, in my view quite sufficient to inculcate the interdisciplinary and intellectual breadth required, at the graduate level, to prepare students for a scholarly life; nor is it sufficient as a means of introducing students to and engaging them with history as a discipline and the Middle Ages as a period. History, like all humanities disciplines, is fundamentally concerned with asking questions about the human condition, and indeed at its core it asks what it has meant to be human in the past—and, in my view, what this can teach us equally about the present; this view is always present in my pedagogy. At the graduate level, it is manifest in, for example, my encouragement that students include on their reading lists works on historical periods and regions outside medieval Latin Europe, as well as scholarship from other fields such as anthropology and sociology; equally, discussions in my graduate seminars are always anchored in medieval sources, but I constantly endeavour to get my students to think both about the particularities of the historical period, region, and topic (for example: poverty in late-medieval cities) as well as its universal aspects (e.g. to what extent is the attitude that there are categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor still present, and what does this say about the course of history, ‘progress’, and the relationship of our present to the past). Similarly, my undergraduate survey was planned to provide students an insight into the lived experience of being a medieval person (on which details are given further below), and I never hesitate to use the Middle Ages and the present as means of illuminating each other. For example, in my lecture on ‘the Saint’, beginning with the hagiography of St Martin of Tours and his efforts to convert the non-Christian people of France, I discuss not only the processes of conversion in the Middle Ages, but also the historical link between those processes and the concomitant destruction of a sacred landscape (based on an episode in which a sacred tree containing a ‘demon’ is cut down) and comparable processes both of conversion and of desacralisation of the environment in modern Canada that last unto this day.
While I am very blunt with my students about the crucial importance of raising large fundamental questions, I am also clear about the fact that I am not a philosopher, and what I teach is not a mode of abstract reasoning about big issues. In my disciplines of literary scholarship and history, we approach the manifestations of humanity in the past on the basis of the evidence of texts, and to access this evidence, we require a very solid grounding in basic skills that are—as I realised somewhat belatedly after two years in this post—no longer regularly taught with much rigour at the undergraduate level in North America. If we seek to ask what it means to be human, and how we can learn about this from the past, we must be able to access that past as directly as possible. That means facility with the languages of our sources, and the ability to read them as they were written, in manuscript form, and to present our evidence in cogent, well-structured arguments, to our readers and students. As a result, my teaching always places weight equally on two feet: the larger intellectual issues, and the core disciplinary skills needed to address those issues; and I encourage and train my students always to achieve the best they can in both respects.
The results of my pedagogical approach are perhaps most clearly evident in the number of students who have asked me to serve on their committees as supervisor, co-supervisor, or advisor, and I turn now to this aspect of my work in the past four years. I am currently sole supervisor of five PhD students, and co-supervisor of a further five (all at CMS). Two of these will defend over the course of 2020–21. I am also on five committees (three in History, two at CMS) as advisor (or in one case as second reader for the comprehensive exam major field), and have been asked to serve in that role for one incoming PhD student at CMS. It seems unlikely, at this point, that the number of students I concurrently supervise will drop below five at any point in the foreseeable future, and I am not sure if it will get to such a low number; I intend to keep it to a maximum of nine, in order to be able to devote sufficient time and energy to all of my students.
My range of supervision is very broad, even beyond my own quite diverse research areas. What I bring to my students is therefore frequently distinct from—and arguably more important than—expertise in their specific topics. I have no one approach to supervising graduate students; I lay out to them at the outset what they can expect from me—prompt, regular, and extremely detailed feedback on all their work, including applications for jobs, awards, and fellowships; a distinction between my empathy for them as human beings and my critical assessment of their scholarship; accessibility over email, in person, or in some virtual format; support with applications of any sort, including reading multiple drafts of cover letters etc. and the timely submission of letters of support; and above all, the fact that I am on their side—and ask that they tell me what they want of me in terms of supervisory style. If they feel that they need regular prodding, I give it to them; if they feel they work better without micro-management, I leave them alone; but I always have an eye and ear open for them, and make sure to speak openly whenever I have any concerns. To their persons, I bring empathy and an ear, as well as a human being to interact with who is not a peer or a part of their personal circle, but nevertheless cares about their well-being; to their work, even without expertise in the subject, I bring a deeply critical eye which provides them with constructive but also honest feedback, and a constant effort to stretch their intellectual horizons and make them achieve a high standard both in terms of the questions they pose, and with regard to the core scholarly skills a dissertation is supposed to demonstrate.
In my supervision and teaching especially, I aim to inspire the hope that thinking with the past is an invaluable and hopeful exercise in trying to understand the present in order to achieve an ethical way of being, and I do my best to embody the qualities of scholarship that I hope my students will take to heart: the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and wisdom with a commitment both to use whatever is learned to strive for an ethical life, and to pass on whatever is learned to anyone who is willing to take the trouble genuinely to ask. I am extremely content with my current reputation of requiring very high standards and being a hard taskmaster, but also of being someone who cares about my people and is always supportive and—with the exception of matters relating to punctuation and writing style—not at all scary. If I may allow myself a modicum of pride, I feel it is no mean achievement to have gained the trust of so many students across such a range of subjects on the basis of my abilities as a mentor and guide, in so few years in post, and despite the fact that—as my students always tell others asking for advice in choosing a supervisor—working with me always entails a lot of slog. One of the students who recently asked me to supervise sent me an email saying that ‘a big part of why I’d love to work with you is your dedication to your students. You genuinely care about us and our development. By the time you are retired, you will have an army of the most grateful people that you’ve raised. I would love to be part of that army’. I have no desire to have a intellectual ‘school’ of any kind and indeed the very diversity of topics and approaches among my students means that such conformity will thankfully be impossible; but it pleases me greatly to know that an ‘army’ of smart, morally committed, curious young people will go out into the world of scholarship with a solid command of a diverse set of skills, nurtured by my care for a number of years.
Apart from supervising PhDs, I also, of course, teach a range of graduate courses. The principal requirement for all CMS students is the acquisition of a high degree of facility in reading Medieval Latin, and the introductory and intermediate Medieval Latin courses (MST1000Y, for MA students; and MST1001Y, for PhD students) have, roughly since the time of the Centre’s inception, been the primary loci of contact with more or less the complete student body. (Since 2019, this is even more true of MST1003, a professional development course described below.) I was hired to replace Lawrin Armstrong at CMS (himself hired to replace George Rigg, one of the founders of the Medieval Latin programme), and as with Armstrong, half of my teaching load (1.0 Full Course Equivalent [FCE]) has been and shall remain teaching one of MST1000 or MST1001 every year. Although these courses are assessed and graded in the conventional manner, in order to be admitted to the PhD programme, and once admitted in order to progress to the dissertation writing stage, all students must pass the CMS Level One and Level Two Medieval Latin examinations respectively, which are not set or marked by the instructors who taught MST1000 (for Level One) and MST1001 (for Level Two) in the year preceding. (I will not go into the details of the marking procedures here beyond noting that blind triple-marking—with the third marker comprising a committee of at least five faculty members—is unique for such an exam in North America, and probably in any Anglophone university.) The goal of each course is to guide students through reading Medieval Latin in a wide range of styles and genres from across the whole period, though obviously in MST1000 the range is more limited because of the need to find texts appropriate for an introductory course. In both courses, students meet three times a week for an hour with the instructor (supplemented by a further two hours of tutorial with a graduate student TA) to read and translate texts; typically, we spend six to eight sessions on one text before moving on. After teaching MST1000 in 2016–17, I have taught MST1001 every year since. As was the case with my predecessors, the focus in my class remains on intensive close translation of passages, and I make an explicit effort to choose texts representative of as many different genres, periods, and styles as possible; translation is coupled with discussion of etymology, word-formation, and syntax, as appropriate.
Having acquired the language, the second set of skills medievalists require have to do with being able to read the sources in manuscript; of the package of core courses offered for these skills, I was appointed to teach Diplomatics, succeeding Lawrin Armstrong. Diplomatics is the critical study of documentary—rather than literary—manuscript sources, and is taught in MST1110H Diplomatics and diplomatic editing. Documentary sources represent by far the bulk of the manuscript material extant from the Middle Ages, and as taught in Toronto, the discipline encompasses the study and editing (including transcription, dating, identification of all places and persons named, and providing contextual information and basic research bibliography) of a wide range of documents, including but not limited to papal and royal charters, contracts, account books, testaments, notarial records, court records, letters, diaries, memoranda, and so on. In North America, the University of Toronto is unique in offering a full course devoted to this discipline, and even in Europe, it is taught only at a handful of universities.
The method of teaching encompasses both the practical exercise of editing a text, and an overview of the historical circumstances behind the production of such texts, namely the history of administrative, record-keeping, and archival practices in various regions of Europe, coupled with surveys of the necessary reference works and guides to sphragistics, chronology, numismatics, scripts, textual conventions, and related subjects that students may require in their own practice to produce a competent edition or, equally important, to confront and work competently with the diversity of material to be encountered in the archive. For the former aspect of the course, students are introduced in the first few weeks to the norms recommended by the International Commission on Diplomatics for the edition of such texts, and are provided with facsimiles of eight texts with no information about them, which they must then edit; these editions comprise eighty per cent of the final grade. The latter aspect of the course takes the form of a lecture accompanied by a (normally very substantial) handout; going over this material takes up about half of each session, with the rest devoted to going over student editions and the practical issues arising therefrom. Unlike the practice in the few other universities that teach this skill, in Toronto we do not focus on a single national tradition, but rather aim to provide an overview of as much of Latin Europe as possible. I first taught MST1110 along with Lawrin Armstrong in 2017–18; I have since taught the course again solo in 2019–20 (see the syllabus here), and shall do so again in 2021–2.
As I mentioned above in my discussion of my pedagogical approach, while philological skills are essential, they do not provide sufficient intellectual foundations for a career in scholarship; nor are they sufficient to provide the background many of our students lack in broad areas of medieval studies. The latter is addressed in part by courses such as John Haines’s introduction to medieval liturgy, Giulio Silano’s course on the papacy, Isabelle Cochelin’s course on monasticism, and earlier by Armstrong’s course on common law. As my contribution to addressing these aspects of the programme, I developed a survey course on medieval social history (MST3241H), and have revised Armstrong’s course on historiography and historical methods to teach in 2020–21 (MST3231H); I hope to offer these two courses in rotation along with MST1110 to form a set of what I would consider core courses for medieval historians, which would provide them with the skills to work with documentary materials, an overview of medieval social history, and a broad base in a diverse range of methods and theories used in historical research.
My social history survey, MST3241H Everyday life in medieval Europe (perhaps more accurately titled Everyday life of ordinary people in medieval Europe) is intended to give students a broad overview of various aspects of the lives of ordinary people—the medieval ninety per cent—along with introducing them to some of the key works of scholarship in medieval social history and the methods and sources that may be used for such research. Topics covered include ‘making a living’, ‘material culture’, ‘women in the Middle Ages’, ‘popular religion’, ‘old age and death’. Students are required to read either a broad survey text on the subject of the week, or a detailed study; at the end of the course, they may write a historiographic survey, or a primary source-based research paper. During the course, students gain a familiarity with many topics (such as economic history) that they will not have encountered before; equally important, given the way medieval history is often taught at the undergraduate level, they gain familiarity with the kinds of sources and methods used to approach the lives of the majority of medieval people, a focus that I insist on throughout the course. They thus acquire a broad knowledge of medieval social history, while also encountering a number of fundamental works of scholarship, such as Christopher Dyer’s Standards of living in the Middle Ages (the only monographic study of European standards of living in this period in any language), or Michel Mollat’s The poor in the Middle Ages (a work that more or less founded the study of medieval poverty), and a host of other key texts. I taught MST3241 in my first year in post, and once again in 2018–19, and will offer it again in 2021–22.
My course on historiography and historical methods (Clio’s workshop: history and historiographical methods), inherited from Lawrin Armstrong, takes his approach in a somewhat different direction, bringing in not just topics such as gender history and Marxist history, but also some key works of scholarship in anthropology, sociology, economic history, and art history, to give students a sense of how cognate disciplines working in other periods can be stimulating for the study of the Middle Ages. Along with scholarship in such fields, I also include some works of medieval history that have been inspired by these theoretical and/or cross-disciplinary perspectives to demonstrate how these ideas can be fruitful. This course thus serves a number of objectives: it provides our students with a broader intellectual foundation and an introduction to key works of historical scholarship in other periods that gives them an enhanced ability to interact with colleagues outside the period on the basis of an at least partly shared intellectual formation (which, given that they are socialised in a department focussing on one period, they sorely need, in contrast to peers studying medieval history in a history department); it also gives them a sense of how even medieval history can be, and in the hands of its best practitioners frequently is, far more than just a principally philological discipline. In other words, such a course would go a long way to bridging the artificial but unfortunately often unhealthily prominent gulf in medieval studies between philology and theory. It would also contribute to one of my key pedagogical aims, especially with regard to graduate students: to nurture minds that are inquiring beyond the narrow confines of what they choose for their dissertation, and to encourage students to grow into the life of the scholar as intellectuals, rather than end up exemplifying the scholar as Fachidiot.
Beyond these broad courses that I conceive of as foundational, I have also developed two courses more closely related to my own research, two of which (MST1370 and MST1327) I taught in 2017–18. MST1370H From farm to market: social and economic transformation in the Middle Ages provides students with a survey of most aspects of medieval economic history, from the agrarian economy to long-distance trade, and introduces them to the major debates in this field. Unlike MST3241, given the more narrow focus of this course, I also introduced students to a broad ranges of primary sources used in the study of medieval economic history, and each student was expected to make a substantial presentation to the whole class about one primary source and the problems posed by that text. This course draws, obviously, on one of the core areas of my research, namely the economic history of medieval western Europe. My second research seminar is on a completely different topic (albeit one that was to have been the subject of my own doctoral dissertation). The one inescapable fact of life is that we shall all die; and coming to terms with this fact is at the core of the Christian religion (as of many others). MST1327H Death, dying, and society in medieval northern Europe provides students with an opportunity to grapple with how medieval people sought to deal with death, and gives them an introduction to how one might go about studying the social history of death in the period. After surveying a number of broad approaches to death in the past (not restricted to the Middle Ages), and the early history of death and dying in Christianity, students work with a range of primary sources (including death rituals, wills, sermons, the multimedial Dance of Death and other works of art and literature) and scholarship, before concluding with a brief overview of how, if at all, the social history of death was affected by the Reformation.
For the future, I would like to develop (whenever I get the time for this) a new course tentatively titled Muddling the middle: medieval Europe in global perspective. This course is intended to be a discursive exercise in comparative history. Its basic premises are, first, that nurturing curiosity beyond one’s specialisation is a fundamental responsibility of all scholars and teachers; and second, that a comparative intellectual framework has many salutary effects on scholarship, chief among them being that it acts as a stimulus to new approaches, questions, and methods of viewing one’s own area of specialisation, and that it sharpens one’s ability to identify both what is truly unique and what is common beyond the bounds of one’s region or period. It is thus intended to encourage students to think across a very broad canvas with relation to their topics, allowing them to learn about other regions of the world in a manner that will simultaneously lead them to view their own areas somewhat differently, and question received concepts of periodisation with regard to the history of both Europe. It is not intended to help students become experts with regard to other regions; the study of the latter is intended to provide a stimulus to revisiting and rethinking approaches to the study of western Europe in the period traditionally defined as ‘medieval’. Among one of the intellectual goals is also the questioning of the term ‘medieval’, and its applicability both within Europe and without. That said, it is hoped that this course will also be of pragmatic benefit, in that many fields in the humanities, including history, are currently in the midst of what some have called a ‘global turn’, and this course will provide students with some background knowledge about other regions and expose them both to the potentials of ‘global’ history, but also—importantly, given the enthusiasm and concomitant lack of care often evident in the ‘global’ scholarship of today—some of its pitfalls, and the ways in which such study must be approached with care and sensitivity. Many historical developments can be found occurring independently across many world regions: commercialisation, chivalry and courtly culture, monasticism, mysticism, urbanisation, state formation, vernacularisation, among others. All cultures need to find some ways of providing for their subsistence, cultivating the land, dealing with common issues such as love, sex, sexuality, childhood, old age, and death. I make no pretence of being any sort of expert on all of these issues with regard to western Europe, let alone the world; and that will be an important component of my course, that instructor and students alike will genuinely be learning together. That said, I will need to have read a vast amount on these topics before I try and lead this experiment in collective learning, which is why I don’t expect to be able teach this course before 2023–24 at the earliest.
In addition to these formal courses listed in the course catalogue, I have given one-on-one Directed Reading courses in every year since 2016: an introduction to Middle High German language and literature (2016–17); religion, economics, and morality in medieval England (2017–18); Old Norse literature (2018–19; 2019–20). In the first and last instances, these Directed Reading courses were to make up for gaps in teaching caused by research leave (Middle High German) and the lack of tenured faculty whose primary responsibility is to teach Old Norse literature. I am teaching three more such courses in the first semester of 2020–21, on wine in medieval Germany, and lay religiosity in late-medieval France, and once again on Old Norse literature. My approach to these courses has been much inspired by my tutorial teaching while I was at Oxford, for which students would write a paper on a previously assigned topic every week that would then be discussed and provided with written feedback in the meeting with me. For Directed Reading courses based on reading literary texts, we translate a large amount of text at every weekly meeting, and the student also provides me with a revised written translation at the end of the course; this, along with an annotated bibliography of scholarship and a final research paper comprise the assessment for the course. For Directed Reading courses based on a particular theme or topic, the student and I agree on five bibliographies for five historiographic papers on various sub-topics, to which I give extensive written feedback in addition to discussing the paper at length in person. The student then presents me with an outline for a final research paper, which paper, presented a week before I have to submit my grades, forms the major part of the assessment. As a graduate student myself, I took a number of such courses and published revised versions of the final papers for each one; two of my students have revised their final papers for my Directed Reading courses with further feedback from me, and I envisage them being in a publishable state within the next few months.