All posts by emlavallee

Encounters with the Philosopher

I have to confess, prior to about a month and a half ago, I hadn’t ever read much Aristotle. Not only that, but while I would confidently nod my head in agreement when someone else mentioned ‘the significant impact of the translation of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century’, I only had a somewhat vague idea of what this impact actually was (unaided by the fact that many medieval historians writing on the topic seem to assume you already know and therefore spare themselves the effort of going into any detail).

This gap in my knowledge became readily apparent when I attempted to summarize medieval virtue ethics in an essay for my supervisor and more-or-less concluded with the formal essay equivalent of ‘…. and then Aristotle happened, and … things?’

Needless to say, I was sent away to acquaint myself with the Philosopher, more particularly with his Nicomachean Ethics.

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Oxford Bibliographies: Medieval Studies

I’ve only just stumbled across this website, run by Oxford University Press. It provides annotated bibliographies on a whole host of medieval topics, from ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’ to ‘Women’s Life Cycles’ – particularly useful if you are making a foray into a new topic or genre, such as medieval liturgy, and need a brief guide to the state of the primary sources as well as recommendations on the best entry secondary sources.

Palaeography Tools

Two invaluable online resources that have been lifesavers for me as I’ve started to work with unedited manuscripts:

A. Cappelli’s Dizionario de Abbreviature – The indispensable and definitive guide to Latin abbreviations, this online version of the Italian edition is much more comprehensive than the later English edition.

Enigma – In what I can only imagine was the result of an inspired friendship between a medievalist and a computer programmer, this brilliant tool allows you to enter as much of the word as you can make out, together with a host of wildcard options, and then provides you with a list of every possible option, courtesy of Whitaker’s Words. Particularly cleverly, it allows each minim (the identical vertical strokes found in ‘i’, ‘u’, ‘m’, and ‘n’) to be entered as a ‘!’, so for example,  ‘!!!!!!!ere’ spits out only three possible options (innuere, munere, numere) which you can then narrow down based on context.

If Only They’d Thought of Me …

One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!

Continue reading If Only They’d Thought of Me …

Transfer of Status

It’s nearly the end of Trinity Term now, as evidenced by the wonderfully long evenings and occasional almost-summer’s day. My obsession with punting remains, but my luck seems to have deserted me and my last few forays on the river have been accompanied by decidedly less-than-magical weather. Still, I hold out hope for sunny days to come!

The main excitement of Trinity for us First Year DPhils is the Transfer of Status, the first proper milestone of our degrees. Essentially the purpose is to verify that, given six months or so of research, those research proposals which we threw together for our DPhil applications way back at the start of our master’s programme have now blossomed into something relatively coherent and feasible—and to someone other than us and our supervisors. The ‘transfer of status’ refers to our official transition, upon successful completion of the process, from Probationary Research Students (PRS) to fully-fledged DPhil Students.

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Using Canon Law

I found approaching canon law for the first time for historical research more than a little tricky, so I thought I would distill some of the most helpful ‘starter’ information I found on the way for anyone else embarking on it. (For more detail on what I was actually looking for, see my earlier post.)

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Canon and Roman Law, Oh My!

In a (not so) recent post, I was complaining about remarking on the difficulties I’ve encountered deciphering the early modern printed editions of the canon law texts I’m working with. Today I thought I’d focus on what canon law is and why I’m hoping these texts will be worth the effort.

I’ll start by giving some general background on canon law and then dive into a more detailed discussion of an example from my own research.

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Humbert de Romans

Humbert de Romans is surprisingly overlooked as a historical figure, given his influence in the early shaping of the Dominican Order in the mid-thirteenth century.

Elected as the fifth Master-General of the Dominican Order in 1254, only a few decades after the Order had been established, Humbert reorganized and thereby standardized the Dominican liturgy, had a new edition of the Order’s Constitutions prepared, drew up new Constitutions for the nuns associated with the Order, and wrote a number of influential and—for modern historians—informative works concerning the operations of the Order.

Some of his key works include:

  • De eruditione praedicatorum (On the Instruction of Preachers) – Reflecting contemporary changes in the makeup of society, Humbert writes of sermons preached ad omne genus hominum (to every type of person), taking into consideration the dominant circumstances of the audience and varying the sermon accordingly. He also discusses the value of private conversation for edification.
  • De officiis ordinis (On the Offices of the Order) – A very informative treatise on each of the various types of officials within Dominican convents, from the master-general down.
  • De dono timoris (On the Gift of Fear), a.k.a. Tractatus de habundantia exemplorum (Treatise on a Wealth of Examples) – A highly popular collection of hundreds of exempla, or illustrations, for use in sermons, around the topic of one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Humbert de Romans’ collected Latin works can be found in Opera de vita regulari, edited by J. J. Berthier (Rome, 1888). His Treatise on Preaching has been translated into English by Walter M. Conlon (London, 1955).
The most useful secondary work in English is probably Edward Tracy Brett’s Humbert of Romans: His Life and Views of Thirteenth-Century Society (Toronto, 1984), which includes a summary of each of Humbert’s works.


Out for a Ramble: Oxford’s Parks & Gardens

Everyone knows that Oxford is a stunningly beautiful place, especially when the sun is shining, but in addition to its picture-postcard medieval and Neoclassical buildings, it also has some wonderful green spaces perfect for a contemplative stroll of a warm afternoon. Below are some of my favourites!

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Take a foreign language, write it in an unfamiliar script, abbreviating every third word, and you have the compound puzzle that is the medieval Latin manuscript.

Preface to English translation of A. Cappelli’s The Elements of
Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Paleography (1982) 

Minding My P[er]’s & Q[uae]’s

I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:

Geoffrey of Trani, Summa super Titulos Decretalium (1491 ed.), fol. 47.

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Oxford’s Libraries

Anyone who has spent five minutes in Oxford knows about the Bodleian Library, but the university actually brims over with dozens of libraries, each with its own charms (admittedly, some more than others). The following are the libraries I tend to use most in the course of my various research tangents. (The unfortunate lack of decent interior pictures of my own is due to library regulations against wandering around like a tourist snapping shots of the ceiling.)

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DPhil Year 1: Michaelmas Term

After a down-to-the-wire wait to fulfill my academic conditions, my tenure as a doctoral student in Oxford officially began in October. (Though officially, I’m actually a ‘probationary research student’ until I go through the Transfer of Status process towards the end of the year to become a fully-fledged doctoral candidate.)

Given how little course time was involved in the master’s last year, at least after the first few weeks, I assumed the doctoral programme would feel very much the same. However, I underestimated the difference between having a least one weekly seminar with required reading and embarking on a programme that essentially consists of, ‘Welcome, DPhils. There’s the library. Have fun!’ The amount of self-discipline required to drag oneself to said library is exponentially increased when the deadlines are nebulous and generally very far away.

Fortunately, I do meet with my supervisor every three or four weeks, which is helping to keep me on some kind of track. Since my research topic overlaps a number of different historical fields (England, France, political history, intellectual history, law, theology, historiography, etc.), I’ve primarily spent the last term wading into various academic conversations, seeing what’s out there and trying to fill in the blank spots in my background knowledge. Every month or so I try to summarize the main points of interest into a rough essay of a few thousand words for my supervisor, and then I move on to something else. I’m sure (I hope!) all this rooting around will be very useful later, but it can also feel a bit directionless at times.

Of course, there are also research seminars and lectures to attend, as well as language classes. (A beautiful Oxford moment was sitting with a little Latin reading group in the All Souls common room, sipping tea and translating Gerald of Wales … ) As I’ve discovered from my forays into untranslated twelfth- and thirteenth-century chronicles, my Latin is still pretty weak at the moment, but I have a feeling it’s going to be rather good by the time I’m through!

Outside of the research, it is lovely to be in Oxford for a second year. The pressure of doing everything and seeing everything has eased off, and instead I can look forward to repeating those things I most enjoyed last year. I’ve moved colleges, to St Cross, one of the graduates-only colleges (which, though a creation of the 1960s, has thoughtfully ensconced itself in Victorian neo-Gothic walls, complete with a tiny little Oxford quad). Though I’ll admit to a slight hankering after the medieval colleges, there is a benefit to the graduate colleges, particularly as they are rather better at remembering that students do still exist outside the undergraduate terms.

Oxmas has now passed (complete with the Bodleian’s Christmas tree and as many candle-lit carol services as one could possibly wish), as has Christmas. The libraries are closed from December 24 to January 2, the perfect time for entirely guilt-free relaxation (entirely different from the I-really-should-be-reading kind!)

Magdalen’s Deer Park, outside my bedroom window!



How Medievalists are Born

[As a child] I assumed that medieval people all believed what popes told them to believe, or got burned as heretics. Some historical misconceptions are 100 per cent fantasy. Other have an infinitesimal grain of truth and blow it out of proportion. My own view of the Middle Ages hovered between these categories.

Then doubts began. Putting the medieval church in a black bin bag to throw it away could do it no harm. The people concerned were long dead and out of harm’s way. But we might do harm to ourselves, I reflected, if misconceptions about the past were to distort our views of own places in the world, and where it was going.

So I encouraged the doubts.

– Alexander Murray, introduction to Conscience & Authority in the Medieval Church