In my PhD research, I am looking at the local pasts that were communicated through liturgy in the tenth century in a metropolitan city on the Moselle river: Trier. My main corpus of sources consists of prayers, sermons, hymns and hagiographical texts, all of which can be found in medieval manuscripts from this area. In order to study these manuscripts, I needed to visit Trier itself, as they were not digitized yet. Visiting the epicentre of my research, however, proved more fruitful than I had imagined.
Architecturally, the city of Trier is a strange mix of every period from the last two millennia. The Porta Nigra and a basilica from the time of Constantine the Great represent the Roman past, the cathedral and market square
represent the High Middle Ages, and numerous churches and monasteries in and around the city were rebuilt in the course of history. The city breathes its own past on every corner. It was very useful to be inside my ‘object of study’ for many reasons, not least for its insights into the local religious communities of tenth-century Trier.
Firstly, I could physically measure the distance between the religious centres of the city. Even though many churches and monasteries have changed considerably over the last thousand years, the location of these centres did not. Being able to walk from the (still-in-use) monastic centre of St. Eucharius to the cathedral in half an hour, and then going another ten minutes to the royal abbey of St. Maximin and the canonical centre of St. Paulin, I got a clear grasp of how close these centres were to each other. This would have made interaction between the different centres very likely.
Another advantage of being at the ‘crime scene’ of my research is the availability of material culture. Studying liturgical sources, I was delighted to go into the Dom Schatzkammer, where golden reliquaries just sat there, waiting to be studied. Another obligatory visit was, of course, to the Stadtbibliothek, a modern building where the medieval manuscripts are kept. After having had a look at the beautifully illuminated Ottonian manuscripts – a local guide was very keen on explaining their greatness – I got to see my original incentive for visiting Trier.
Not only the artefacts and manuscripts, but also the lay-out of churches and monasteries were enlightening. Most of the time that is… Most bizarre was my visit to the royal abbey of St. Maximin. This monastery had been enormous and thriving in the tenth century. Now, however, most of the monastic buildings are gone, and the church itself – rebuilt in the seventeenth century – functions as a gym for the local secondary school. Gym mattresses were protecting the students from painfully bumping into the massive columns of the nave, and a basketball net had replaced a statue of Christ in front of the apse.
Although in some cases, time had completely ruined the medieval ambiance, other places seem to have survived the test of time brilliantly. A large component of my research comprises the study of local patron saints, as hagiographical texts and prayers for these saints can tell us about the importance of that local saint and the role he or she played in local society. Visiting the burial places – the centres of local cults – was an important element of my stay in Trier. Entering the crypt of St. Matthias’s Abbey, and sitting down in front of the late antique sarcophagi of the first archbishop of Trier, Eucharius, and his successor, Valerius, I could not help feeling connected with all those monks and pilgrims who have been visiting this crypt to pray to the local patron for the past sixteen centuries. The feast of St. Eucharius is still celebrated by the local Benedictine community every December: continuity in its highest form.
Studying medieval history is not only studying primary sources and reading literature. Most importantly, it is an attempt at imagining a past society. This society is best understood, I believe, if you have a chance to be part of it. When I returned from my visit to Trier, I did not only bring home notes on the studied manuscripts and reliquaries, but also about the physical distance between different centres, and the ambiance of local cult sites. And, in the spirit of traveling medieval monks, I brought back the thought that – if nothing else – I will have saint Eucharius of Trier at my side on the rest of my intellectual journey.
Lenneke van Raajj, PhD Student on the HERA-funded After Empire project
Appropriately – given that it was Halloween – I spent part of reading week in the archives researching the history of magic. Dr Alex Mallett (formerly of Exeter, now based in Leiden) and I were doing some of the final research for an AHRC-funded project led by Professor Dionisius Agius, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ (see here for more details). I’ve written about this project on the blog before, when we were at a much earlier stage. To recap, it studies the case of Sellem, a Muslim slave who was accused of offering a variety of magical services to Christians. The case gives us a fascinating insight into many magical beliefs, Christian-Muslim relations, and many other aspects of life in early modern Malta and, with the help of a team of other British, Maltese and French scholars, we’ll be exploring these in the book we’re producing as the main outcome of the project.
Alex and I were researching in the Cathedral Archive in Mdina, which holds the inquisition records and, once again, gave us a friendly welcome.
Now we’re in the finishing stages of the project the kind of research we were undertaking was rather different from what I described back in 2014 when the project team first visited Malta together. Then we were searching for other references to Sellem in the archives, as well as exploring some of the other magic cases in the records for comparative material and planning the project’s Malta-based public engagement activities. This time, it was more a case of satisfying ourselves that we hadn’t missed anything crucial: making sure we really had checked all the files for the early years of the seventeenth century; tracking down some last supporting documents; finalising the last tricky bits of translation from Latin and Italian; and checking references.
It was also a good chance to catch up with some of the Maltese scholars who had contributed their expertise to the project. Just in case you might be tempted to think it was all work, there were also project meetings involving excellent Maltese cakes.
The visit to the archive – my first in 2 ½ years – also reminded me how much interesting material it contains for a scholar who, like me, is interested in magic and particularly in popular magical beliefs and how the Church tried to categorize and discourage them. Even though the seventeenth century is rather later than my usual area of expertise, I will definitely try to go back!
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
Thinking about doing a doctorate in Medieval Studies, but unsure how to turn that initial idea into a formal funding proposal? This post offers some guidance on the process – as well as some information about what the Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter has to offer for PhD study.
From idea to application
So you’re interested in doing a PhD… What should you do next?
- The first step is to identify a potential project. This means reading up on the past and current scholarship in the field, locating your main primary source materials, and finding a new angle, question or approach to the topic.
- Once you’ve done this, then you should look for an appropriate supervisor for your project. The research interests of your potential supervisor should overlap significantly with those of your project: sharing geographical, chronological and/or thematic foci is essential. You have probably already read some of their work when researching your topic. Your potential supervisor should also have some familiarity with the main genre of primary sources you’re going to use. At this stage, you should try to identify an initial list of three or four possible supervisors. In order to check what they are working on at the moment and what topics they are happy to supervise, check their university webpage, which generally lists research interests, publications, and areas of supervision they can offer.
- Next contact a potential supervisor via e-mail. Include a brief summary of your project either in the e-mail itself or as an attachment, and ask whether they would be interested in supervising research on this topic. You should also give some indication of your marks for both undergraduate and postgraduate work – they will want to know that you are capable of pursuing study at this level.
- You may get a variety of responses to your e-mail. Some scholars may feel unsuited to the project or be unable to supervise another student at this time. Others may want you to develop the project further and then get back in touch. Others may be interested in your project and want to discuss it with you. They will also probably request a writing sample to get a better idea of your abilities.
- At this point, apply to the university (or universities – you can apply to more than one and it is often sensible to do so to maximise your chances of funding) through whatever their application process is. Generally it’s an online form. Check dates for funding deadlines (or ask the university’s postgraduate office if they’re not on the website). Funding deadlines are often much earlier than application deadlines.
- If your potential supervisor is happy to supervise your project, you should now work with them to draft an application for funding. Competition for doctoral funding is intense and your potential supervisor’s input will be crucial in putting forward a strong application. You should try to meet with them in person or virtually to discuss your project, partly, to get to know each other a bit better – after all, you’re intending to work closely with this person for the next 3-4 years!
- Finally, listen to the advice of your potential supervisor and respond to their criticisms on any draft proposal – it will make your application better and will create a positive impression. Your potential supervisor will also have knowledge about the institution that is useful. Your application will need to show that you either have the skills required to use your primary sources or that you will be able to acquire them early on in your project – your potential supervisor will be able to advise you on training what is available at the chosen university. They will also be able to help identify colleagues who share interests with your topic or approach – this will strengthen your case for the fit between your project and that particular research centre.
Funding deadlines tend to be early in the new year so the time to start the process is now!
What about Exeter?
Want to work with leading experts in the field and enjoy the delights of leafy Devon? Then why not look at what Exeter has to offer! The Centre for Medieval Studies hosts a large, interdisciplinary community of scholars with particular strengths in medieval history, archaeology and Old French – and we’re looking for new PhD students to join us!
Several, highly competitive, funding options are available.
- The AHRC SWW DTP Studentship competition opens on 27 November 2017 and the final deadline is 11 January 2018. There will be no Open Day in Cardiff this year, but students can sign up for virtual information sessions until 1 November.
- Funding is also be available through Exeter’s internal schemes. The Doctoral College is holding an Open Day from 12.45-18.30 on 15 November for prospective MA and PhD students with talks on Exeter’s research facilities and funding options. It is also a good opportunity to meet your potential supervisor and other medieval staff in person. More details about the Open Day and how to sign up for it can be found here.
- Finally, ESRC SW DTP Studentships (for Economic & Social History applications) are also an option – more information on this competition will be available soon.
Helen Birkett (Lecturer in History) and Catherine Rider (Director, Centre for Medieval Studies)
Last July Cheryl Cooper, who had just completed a History degree at Exeter, did a student internship (funded by the College of Humanities and the Widening Participation scheme) looking at resources for medieval research in the Devon and Exeter Institution. She sums up her findings here. Now that we’re gearing up for the new academic year it might particularly interest returning undergraduates and MA students who are thinking about possible dissertation topics. For Exeter students and staff, Cheryl’s full report will shortly be put on the undergraduate and MA history dissertation ELE sites.
The DEI is one of Exeter’s hidden gems. A perfect paradise of calm and tranquillity for writers, historians and anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Tucked away in the historic centre of Exeter, the DEI, from the outside, looks like many of the quaint buildings in Exeter Cathedral quarter, boasting beautiful cathedral views but you would be remiss to believe that this is where the magnificence of the DEI ends. The real treasures of the DEI are located just behind the historic front doors. Founded in 1813 for ‘promoting the general diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts, and for illustrating the natural and Civil History of the county of Devon and the History of the City of Exeter’, the DEI holds over thirty-thousand volumes and thousands of maps, prints and pamphlets and continues to be a ‘living library’ in which new acquisitions continue to be sourced. Students of Exeter University are automatically eligible for membership of the DEI for the duration of their degree, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) the DEI is a place that stays undiscovered for many students at Exeter. This may be partly due to the fact that many students, myself included, were/are unaware they are members of this hidden gem. As well as boasting a rather grand and peaceful reading room there are a number of study desks located in the library itself. The DEI makes a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of the campus library, and whether you choose to study in the library itself or in the reading room under the shadow of the cathedral, you will not be disappointed spending a few hours in this beautiful building – in fact as historians, the environment may even add some extra flair to your historical writing, as it certainly transported me back a few decades!
Medieval Resources at the DEI
Last July I was delighted to accept an internship with Exeter University cataloguing the medieval material held at the DEI – rifling through old books in a beautiful historic building did not seem like a bad way to spend a few weeks of my summer. The aim of the role was to try and get a clearer idea of what medieval materials the DEI possessed and to organize and present my findings in a way that would be useful for medievalists. Professor Henry French and Dr Catherine Rider had informed me at interview stage that to date, there was no comprehensive list of medieval materials held at the DEI so there was no way of knowing how long this task would take. It was a case of digging through the materials and finding a way of making it accessible to future researchers. I found this an exciting prospect, if not a little daunting. It was a project which I could fully co-ordinate and organise myself and one in which no one was sure what I might find hidden in the depths of the DEI. Of course as an historian the dream of finding a rare, undiscovered manuscript, hiding, untouched on a dusty shelf was never far away. Alas, this did not happen, but I did discover that the DEI holds a wealth of resources for medievalists, in particular for those wanting to research the history of the local area and contemporary views on medieval life.
The DEI (for those yet to visit) consists of two large rooms downstairs (The Inner Library and The Outer Library) and the Gallery situated upstairs. With over thirty-thousand volumes held within these rooms it was almost impossible to know where to begin. However, for this I must thank Paul and Derek from the DEI library team, who sat with me and explained how the library catalogue worked, where the most likely places to find medieval resources were and certain books of interest. Without their help I think I may have been unintentionally trapped in the DEI forever examining each book in turn! With their advice, as well as help and advice from Dr Catherine Rider, I identified the following categories as areas of interest: the Rolls Series, Local History, Wider Local History, Royal History and General History. These five areas are the ones which are covered in the most depth in my catalogue. The aim is to help medievalists who are researching the local area and students who are embarking on a research project and who want to use this local collection of sources.
Working through the areas identified produced a surprisingly large amount of medieval material; so much so, that it was impossible within this internship to list every individual resource. The catalogue produced is intended to give the researcher an idea of what type of material is held in each category and list examples from each. I have also included material that I found to be the most interesting, for example The Alchemical Testament of John Gybbys, translated from a 1423 ms held at the Bodleian Library and a wardrobe account from Edward I. I have tried to select a wide range of material to showcase just how useful the DEI library can be to medievalists.
This project has highlighted the medieval resources held at the DEI and has hopefully catalogued them in way which proves useful for medievalists. I would highly recommend the DEI as a place to study for Exeter students and hopefully this guide will show that it holds potential for medieval researchers. There are still areas yet to be covered in the hunt for medieval material, so who knows that medieval manuscript or unpublished source may be hiding in the DEI waiting for you to find it! Happy researching!
Cheryl Cooper, BA History Graduate and MA Student, University of Exeter
Last week I went to the annual summer conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which was held here in Exeter. This year’s theme was Churches and Education, and it attracted a large turnout from scholars working on all periods, from the early church to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The president of the EHS this year is Exeter’s own Morwenna Ludlow from the department of Theology and Religion, and Morwenna gave a plenary lecture relating to her own area of specialism. This lecture, given jointly with Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe (Cambridge) focused on what early Christian writers in the Latin and Greek traditions said about the pleasures of Bible study – a fitting opening to an academic conference.
Three other Exeter medievalists also gave papers: history PhD student Des Atkinson, talking about the education of the fifteenth-century archbishop of Canterbury John Morton and his contemporaries; theology research fellow Hajnalka Tamas, talking about a fourth-century theological controversy relating to the teaching of a layman, Heraclianus; and me, talking about the medieval church and education relating to pregnancy. As ever, the EHS offered an interested, sympathetic and knowledgeable audience. It is a good place for PhD students and early career scholars, in particular, to offer papers. The audiences offer helpful feedback and the proceedings, published as Studies in Church History, offer an early publication opportunity for many scholars; indeed, one of my first papers was published there, back in 2006.
Overall there were fewer papers on late antiquity and the Middle Ages than at some of the other EHS conferences I’ve attended. Perhaps for some reason (despite the attractive medieval image on the call for papers) the theme appealed particularly to specialists on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is also possible that the Leeds conference, held two weeks before, is providing ever more competition for medievalists’ time, as well as their conference budgets. Nevertheless there were a number of interesting papers on medieval subjects: on Bede, on hagiography, on Pope Gregory VII, and on twelfth-century pastoral care, among other topics. There were also papers on other periods which dealt with questions and topics relevant to medievalists: I particularly enjoyed a plenary lecture on the role of (early modern) convents in educating girls.
Next year’s conference is on the Church and Law, and will be held in Cambridge, so I’d recommend medievalists take a look!
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
Recently, on 24 June, I went to the annual mini-conference of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, held at the Guildhall in Exeter. This year’s theme was Late Medieval and Reformation Parishes, to reflect the theme of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s next forthcoming volume, Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, edited by Dr Joanna Mattingly.
There were two papers, by Joanna Mattingly and Clive Burgess, a historian of medieval parishes based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Mattingly talked about the churchwardens’ accounts from Stratton, in north Cornwall, and gave a taster of what will be in the book. The Stratton accounts are comparatively unusual in that they span the Reformation without a break. Stratton is also unusual because several different types of documentation survive from the parish. There are two different sets of accounts relating to different parts of the parish’s activity – the High Cross, or churchwardens’ accounts, and the General Receivers’ accounts which give an overview of the parish finances as a whole. There are also documents and maps relating to a court case in 1583. This allows us to see information which is normally missing from conventional churchwardens’ accounts. Talking about this rich material, Dr Mattingly described the progress of the Reformation in Stratton, as the parishioners bought new Protestant service books and resisted having their carved wooden rood loft demolished (ultimately unsuccessfully). Alongside this activity, the everyday maintenance of the parish church continued, as churchwardens collected rents and paid for equipment, repairs and cleaning.
In his paper, Clive Burgess also highlighted the importance of the Stratton accounts. He emphasized that most work on medieval and Reformation parish records so far has examined either large urban areas such as Bristol and London (the focus of his own research), or small rural villages, such as Morebath in north Devon, which is the focus of Eamon Duffy’s 2001 book, The Voices of Morebath. Small towns, such as Stratton, are comparatively under-studied. Dr Burgess also gave an overview of the late medieval church to set the Stratton accounts in a larger context. Here he stressed in particular the amount of money which medieval laypeople spent on their parish churches. They paid for building works, altars, chantries and equipment, in exchange for being commemorated and prayed for. There were many reasons for this, including the doctrine of Purgatory (which held that prayers could help the souls of the dead), and the fact that after the Black Death a combination of circumstances meant that many parishioners had some disposable income to spend. He argued that medieval religion was essentially communal, and that late medieval parishes were one expression of this. Wealthy parishioners gave generously and in exchange, the less wealthy were expected to pray for them. One of the changes which took place in the Reformation, according to this view, was a shift to a more individualistic view of religion.
Overall, these two fascinating talks helped to bring the complex religious changes in this period to life, as well as highlighting the amount of unpublished source material waiting for studies and critical editions.
The Devon and Cornwall Record Society was founded in 1904 to transcribe and publish local records, and to promote local historical studies and genealogical research. Its publications cover many aspects of the West Country’s political, social, religious, economic and maritime history. For more information and details of how to join, please see their website.
Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, by Joanna Mattingly (Devon and Cornwall Record Society new series vol. 60) will be published by Boydell and Brewer in spring 2018.
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
There has been a huge proliferation of online resources for research and teaching in Medieval Studies in recent years, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of them all. So we’ve put our heads together and come up with a list of some of our favourites – though this is by no means exhaustive. We hope this will be useful to people researching at all levels but it may come in particularly handy for our second-year undergraduates, who are beginning to think about dissertation topics at this time of year, and for our MA students who are getting started on their dissertation research in earnest.
General Reference for a wide variety of topics and periods:
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, a large (if slightly patchy) archive of translated sources; some are full texts, others extracts.
The International Medieval Bibliography (provided by Brepols, access through the Uni e-library search engine); MLA Bibliography (access ditto) – these are the two main resources for finding research that’s been produced on a topic. The latter is specific to Modern Languages research, the former is Medieval Studies.
Online dictionaries – for French, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and the DEAF (Dictionnaire électronique d’ancien français available in French or German only) are the best. For Latin, the DMLBS (Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources as well as the online Lewis and Short. For English, the Middle English Dictionary (MED).
British History online is very useful for following up charters, roll entries, etc. The search facility is quite good as it has a wild card option, though you will need to anticipate the variant forms of a name in order to find everything relevant.
In French, but covering primary material in various languages including Latin, is arlima.net (Archives de literature du moyen âge). A good place to start when looking for lists of manuscripts of a particular work, basic information e.g. about authorship and length, or bibliographical suggestions. The completeness of entries is rather uneven (some are excellent, some are basically shells) but it is being updated all the time.
http://www.medievalarchaeology.co.uk/ Portal for Europe’s foremost society for the study of medieval archaeology; contains many useful links.
Pastscape: Online database for the historic environment in England and a key starting point for the study of any medieval site or building.
Digimap allows users to find and download Ordnance Survey maps of any date and scale; invaluable for researching medieval landscapes, sites and settlements and depicting them.
More specific sites that we like, in no particular order:
http://www.esawyer.org.uk/about/index.html and http://dk.usertest.mws3.csx.cam.ac.uk/ for Anglo-Saxon charters. The former provides texts of (almost) all Anglo-Saxon charters as well as summaries of modern scholarly commentary, alongside full details of all surviving manuscripts etc., whilst the latter is something of a companion site, which for those signed up provides images of almost all surviving single sheets, along with maps and other useful materials for teaching (and studying) Anglo-Saxon England.
The Monastic Manuscript Project site, especially the page containing a list of links to archives and libraries with digitized medieval holdings It’s presented as a resource for the study of early medieval monasticism, but, really, it’s of use to anyone working on medieval manuscripts.
Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. An outstanding digital edition of an invaluable primary source for medieval political history.
Wellcome Images: database of images from the collections of the Wellcome Library in London. Invaluable for studying the history of medicine (European and worldwide) but also much on manuscripts, religion, science and more. The Library also runs a blog, with some good medieval content.
Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi – database of stories and motifs in medieval exempla, useful for finding references to particular topics or establishing which authors tell which stories. A French site but it provides some English keywords for searching.
Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France is one of the most significant recent digital projects in medieval literary studies – it explores the transmission and mobility of Francophone literature across Europe via a database of the manuscripts of six important textual traditions, including Classical material (romances of Alexander and Troy, Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César) and Arthurian romance (Lancelot, Tristan).
Finally, for information on French-language and Occitan-language material specifically, Jonas, the ‘Repertoire des texts et des manuscrits médiévaux doc et d’oïl’. Again, this is a resource which is improving all the time, and aims for exhaustivity.
Thanks to Helen Birkett (History), Oliver Creighton (Archaeology), Tom Hinton (Modern Languages), Elliot Kendall (English) and Levi Roach (History) for suggesting their favourite websites.
Catherine Rider (History)
Demons appear in all kinds of medieval sources, but often feature particularly in the records kept by saints’ shrines of miracles performed by the saint. Among many other illnesses and disabilities, medieval saints are said to have cured a number of unfortunate men and women who were thought to be ‘possessed’ or ‘vexed’ by demons. In fact, the belief that demons could cause both physical and mental illnesses was not unique to medieval Europe. Medieval hagiographers often modelled their narratives of possession on the New Testament, and the idea can also be found in many other cultures, ancient and modern.
It was with this in mind that in 2013 I and a colleague in the Department of Theology and Religion who specialises in the ancient Near East and early Judaism, Siam Bhayro, organised a conference on Demons and Illness: Theory and Practice from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. The conference proceedings have just been published by Brill, complete with a beautiful cover which shows the image of a demon found on a late antique magic bowl – artist’s impression by Dr Naama Vilozny.
Siam and I have long had a mutual interest in the history of magic and the supernatural, and while thinking about possible joint projects we lighted on the idea of looking comparatively at beliefs relating to demons and illness. There have been many studies of demonic illnesses, possession, and related topics in particular cultures – many of them excellent – but there is much less research that looks comparatively across time or space. Siam and I thought there was a lot of potential here because beliefs relating to demons and illness could be found very widely in the ancient and late antique Near East, and those beliefs in turn had an influence on Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The conference, part funded by Exeter’s Centre for Medical History, brought together scholars from eleven different countries. Their papers ranged from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to seventeenth-century England and we have kept this wide chronological and geographical range in the book. We had several papers on the Middle Ages, which looked at a variety of sources including hagiography, medicine and magical texts.
The conference papers raised many different issues and highlighted the wide range of source material available. Not surprisingly they covered a huge range of beliefs, prompting us to question how far, say, Mesopotamian demons who caused fevers were really comparable with the demons of medieval and early modern Christianity. Nevertheless, some themes kept coming up. Many papers looked at how the belief that demons could make people ill interacted with other understandings of illness, particuarly with the equally widespread and ancient idea that diseases had identifiable physical causes. How far did the sources distinguish between demonic and non-demonic causes of illness? For example, as Claire Trenery and Anne Bailey point out in the book, medieval miracle accounts often distinguished quite carefully between ‘madness’ and ‘possession’ – not all cases of mental illness were put down to demons. Another theme that many of the papers discussed was healing. Who could cure demonic illnesses, and how? Were religious solutions – such as appealing to God, the gods, or a saint – viewed as the most effective? What role did medicine play? Where did the boundary lie between medical and magical cures?
There is scope for plenty more work on this and other questions. We hope that the book will be the start of an ongoing conversation.
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
I’m on research leave this term and working on an ongoing project which looks at attitudes to infertility and childlessness in medieval England. Although there has been a great deal of work in recent decades on topics such as marriage, family structures, childhood and reproductive medicine in the Middle Ages (and in other periods) less attention has been paid to what happened if a married couple did not have children. This could have serious repercussions: children were often needed as heirs and as a means of support in old age, as well as wanted for the pleasure they brought. Not surprisingly, then, infertility is mentioned in a wide range of medieval sources. They include medical treatises and recipes which gave advice to help a woman to conceive or a man to beget a child, and which have received some attention from scholars such as Monica Green, as well as from me. Less well studied are the religious texts which mention infertility, such as Bible commentaries, sermons, and saints’ lives. These works discussed a type of story that recurs several times in the Bible and in hagiography, when a previously infertile woman miraculously gives birth to a special child late in life. Women who fell into this category included the biblical Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, as well as the apocryphal St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary.
I’m currently in the process of picking up the threads of my research after a longish break and I’ve been thinking about the two questions that people ask me most often when I say I’m working on medieval infertilty.
1. They always blamed it on the woman, didn’t they?
This does seem often to have been the case, but things were not always that simple. The stories of miraculous children from the Bible onwards did tend to talk about women, specifically, as infertile. The medical texts were more nuanced. The widely copied twelfth-century medical compendium Trotula, for example, emphasized that could be impeded ‘as much by the fault of the man as by the fault of the woman,’ although it devoted more space to women’s infertility than men’s. However, because we have so few records which describe the experiences of sick people in the Middle Ages it is difficult to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for reproductive problems in practice.
I’m still working out exactly where the balance of attitudes lay, and how significant male infertility was thought to be.
2. Did they see it as a punishment or judgement from God?
Here the answer is complicated. Medical writers tended, unsurprisingly, to focus on the physical causes of infertility, such as imbalances of the humours or serious deformities in the reproductive organs. They may have believed that God was behind these physical problems but if so, they do not say so.
Rather more surprisingly, religious texts also shied away from presenting infertility as a judgement of God. Indeed, some writers went out of their way to say that this was not the case: the thirteenth-century compendium of saints’ lives, The Golden Legend, emphasized when it retold the story of the conception of the Virgin Mary that God might cause temporary infertility in order to allow a child to be born miraculously later on. The fact that they emphasized this so strongly may suggest they were arguing against a common opinion – but it is hard to be sure.
I’m still working out what all this means. What was the range of views and who held them? Which ideas were widely shared in the sources, and which were the unusual views held by only one or two writers? My plan over the next few months is to put together a journal article exploring the religious sources so I’m hoping to know more soon.
Dr Catherine Rider, Lecturer in Medieval History
 See especially Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford, 2008); Catherine Rider, ‘Men and Infertility in Late Medieval English Medicine’, Social History of Medicine 29 (2016), 245-66.
 The Trotula: an English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, trans. Monica Green (Philadelphia, 2002), p. 85.
 The Golden Legend, trans. W. G. Ryan (Princeton, 1993), vol. 2, p. 132.
Recently three academics associated with the Centre for Medieval Studies visited the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, Malta, as part of a research project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition.’ The project is funded by the AHRC, and the project team are Prof. Dionisius Agius from the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (principal investigator) as well as Dr Catherine Rider from History (co-investigator) and Dr Alex Mallett, project researcher. See here for more details.
St Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina
The project is based on the records of the Inquisition in Malta, and it focuses on the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Valletta who was tried for practising magic in 1605. Several witnesses denounced Sellem to the Inquisition, claiming that he had done various kinds of magic for them, including healing, curing illnesses caused by witchcraft, and love magic. More unusually Sellem was also accused of more learned kinds of magic and divination. He admitted to having learned astrology in Cairo, and the inquisition also confiscated from him several divinatory texts, which he denied ever owning. After a lengthy trial involving many witnesses (some of whom were disgruntled clients), Sellem was imprisoned in the prisons of the inquisition, and this is the last we hear of him.
Inquisitor’s Palace, Birgu
The trial document is a very rich source full of anecdotal details and it tells us much about everyday life in seventeenth-century Malta, including magical practices, attitudes to illness and healing, and relations between the Christian Maltese and Malta’s sizeable population of Muslim slaves. Over the next eighteen months the project team will work with the Cathedral archives publish and translate this unusual and very interesting trial record., We will also be holding a workshop in Malta with a group of British, Maltese and French academics to study various aspects of the document. As part of the project we also hope to explore the inquisition records more fully: there is a huge volume of cases and several unexpected items, including a magic hat now on display in the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu. It was inscribed with Arabic writing, and was apparently worn to cure headaches, and the inquisitors confiscated it from a penitent in the early eighteenth century. It is not every day that you get to see a magic hat, even when you work on the history of magic – definitely a highlight of the trip.
Dr Catherine Rider