Interview by undergraduate student Ryan Herrmann (2020). Major: history and political science.
To start, can you tell me a little about what you’re working on more specifically this year?
Sure, so I’m doing a couple of things. I am revising my dissertation for publication as a book. That’s one of my goals this year, and the other is beginning to work on God’s Footprint which is an ongoing project, so I’m kind of getting my first research done, and am specifically this year looking at monasteries in the Île de France region of present-day France. This is the area around Paris, the Seine basin. Partially because it’s really well-documented, so I have different sets of documents that I can read along with archeological evidence. And so this will be one of the main case studies in the bigger project. Along with that, this year I’m also hoping to write an article about dairy production and dairy consumption in that area.
Why did you choose this topic? What about it interests you?
I started thinking about this big question about monasteries and the environment because there’s a contradiction between the rhetoric of monks who were “trying to get away from it all” and live in closer relationship with God as they saw it and really shunning the things of the world, and yet they were becoming these materially wealthy and very important places. I started thinking about that and I was reminded of a question that the modern environmentalist William Rees asked famously, which is "how many people lie awake at night wondering what percentage of the world is dedicated to sustaining their lifestyle?" His answer was, "not many," and he was highlighting the dislocation of the era we live in, the Anthropocene, between the way that we live and think about our footprint in the world. So that’s where the footprint in God’s Footprint comes from. Because I think for the middle ages you could reverse that question and ask how did these monks and how did these religious figures think about the fact that they believed that God created this whole world for their use, and what were they doing with it? That was where I started from. So, there’s that kind of cultural idea of the wondering and imagining why, but there is also the real impact that I mentioned. The development of economies that take off, of resource production, wide-scale transformation of ecosystems: clearing of forests, dredging up new waterways, turning previously uncultivated land into cultivated land, the creation of new towns that were then in economic and spiritual relationships with these monasteries. And so that’s the driving question behind what I’m doing.
What have you discovered while you are doing research? What are some of the key takeaways that you’ve found?
One of the biggest ones is that there used to be this old argument that Medieval people’s relationship with the environment, with nature, was always antagonistic, and that this notion that God gave it to us, we can do whatever we want, is the root of modern ecological crisis. There were some people who thought that, but there were many other voices of diverse perspectives of people’s relationship with the environment. That is one of the most important things that has emerged and that I continue working with. Medieval people thought about their relationship with nature in as many ways as you can possibly think of, many of which were super anthropocentric, meaning thinking that humans are both the center of everything and also outside of nature, so to speak, which is actually a very modern attitude. There were just as many people who imagined people in real relationship with other members, living and nonliving within their ecosystem. They were covering those voices and figuring out how early Medieval people learned to live sustainably, learning to live sometimes not sustainably with their resources is something that’s important for me with my interests in the Middle Ages but also presents analogous lessons for people today.
How does the environment being with other fellows help drive your project?
That’s a great question. Every week one of the big highlights is going to the fellows seminar and it’s because we’re in this environment where everyone is fully committed to reading critically and carefully, to asking questions that not only sharpens the presenter’s analysis or questions, but also opens up new perspectives for us. It’s really cool to see how people from literature, from art, from architecture, anthropology, various disciplines, come together and see things from different perspectives. This is illuminating for my work, but I think also for how I think about collegiality among other academics.
What is one choice you were glad you made when you were an undergrad?
The obvious answer is being a history major, and that was a roundabout process. I went through many permutations. I actually dropped out of college for a while, just to figure out what I wanted to do. I came back later and was a history major, but I think those two things go together: choosing history and also taking time to figure out what I wanted to do were the most important.
What advice would you give to undergraduates?
I remember people telling me when I was an undergrad to take advantage of as many opportunities as you can because never again will you be in a place with so many opportunities and things going on--lectures, presentations, exhibitions of various things, workshops that you can go to, really cool, interesting things that might not be related to your major or what you think your interests are that will push you and provoke you and open up new possibilities for you to imagine. You have nothing else to do right now except go to class and do those things; I mean people work and there are athletics and all that, but I just mean that you’re in a place in your life where you have time and room and space just to explore, and I got that to an extent when I was an undergrad but I think looking back now I think of opportunities that I missed to explore things, and I think that would be my advice.
Last question. Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot actually, so everyone starts by saying that everyone should take math and science because it teaches you practical skills that everyone needs to know. That’s true, but there’s also another side to that, even for those, so taking an algebra class teaches you how to think logically, taking a science class teaches you how the world around you works and what your place in connection to objects and speed and motion are. It’s true for the humanities, so the humanities we say, if you take a literature or history class, will teach you to read more critically, to think more deeply, and to express those ideas whether it’s in writing or verbally and that’s true. There’s another side to that, so studying the humanities helps you figure out how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see things from a perspective you might not have considered. You’ll appreciate there’s beauty or horror or both existing at the same time everyday around you. I think that’s something that humanities offers that people can’t necessarily get in other places.