Can you tell us about the research project you are working on this year?

I am the Norman Freehling Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Humanities this semester, and otherwise Associate Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. My interests lie particularly in the experiences of women throughout medieval history in relation to marriage, family, and illegitimacy. While in residence at the Institute, I will be examining the ramifications of extramarital pregnancy in medieval France. Entitled, “Surviving Illicit Pregnancy in Medieval Christian France,” my project will analyze the means by which women navigated the societal norms and acute demands of religion and law. 

Outside of the Institute, I have continued to work with the non-governmental organization, Libraries with Borders, which provides access to information and educational resources for those who are most in need all over the world. We are active in the Metro Detroit area through our programs which offer literacy resources in laundromats (through Wash and Learn or WALI). I am also committed to public humanities and to public-facing scholarship. 

Why did you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?

As a child, I had always envisioned myself pursuing a career as an opera singer. But at the same time, I was also enamored by reading, and that included everything from biographies of medieval queens to the Holocaust and the history of the Soviet Union. My language study in French led me to discover medieval court records of trials involving adultery and bigamy. I was fascinated by the complex narratives told in each of the cases I reviewed and the differing perceptions of male and female testimonies. My interest in gender during the medieval period was also sparked by reading the work of Professor Natalie Davis, a University of Michigan graduate and prominent figure in premodern social and cultural history. I am most interested in learning about the ways in which the female experience in medieval Europe was understood or misunderstood, for that matter, particularly in legal contexts. 

I ended up writing my dissertation on bigamy and Christianity as documented in legal proceedings. Unanswered questions from that work pushed me to look more into illegitimacy as part of a broader effort to understand women’s experiences of marital and nonmarital relationships, as well as how they were punished for violating social norms, and illicit pregnancy in particular. 

What have you discovered in your research?

My research into medieval court records has meant that I have spent a considerable amount of time in French municipal and national archives. While reviewing material from this period in history, I am always fascinated by the difference in the punishment allotted to women in comparison to men. Rather than assume any consistency, I’ve found that it is important to consider how conceptions of personhood and individual agency have changed over the past several centuries, not always for the better. I have certainly learned that legal practice surrounding illicit pregnancy in medieval France is much more nuanced than what I had originally expected. 

How does being in this environment with other fellows drive your project? 

I am in awe of the Institute and the energetic environment it fosters for interdisciplinary collaboration. Each week, all of the fellows meet to discuss each other’s work and give constructive feedback. The wide array of disciplines represented by this year’s class of fellows has been immensely helpful in working through obstacles in my own research. I really appreciate that the humanities are a vital part of university life, in and outside the Institute. In the coming months, I hope to engage with scholars and researchers on campus with medical knowledge connected to pregnancy and infancy. With every day I spend here, I am increasingly aware of how special Michigan is as an institution, particularly for the humanities and for interdisciplinary collaboration. 

What advice would you give to undergraduates? Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?

My best advice to students is to always look for which subjects excite you and motivate you to continue examining them, day after day. The job market is uncertain and changes often, it’s best to do what you love, but at the same time be willing to question and explore other fields. I thought opera was the only career for me and I was completely wrong! While it might appear daunting and ill-defined at first, try to relax and take advantage of all of the resources that Michigan has to offer. Learn from taking on new opportunities that you might feel unequipped to tackle at first. Find out if you really love what you think you love, but also try to take a course on a topic you think you hate, or that you think you’re not good at, this is a time to try and to explore, you may surprise yourself. And know that training in the humanities in particular promises skill sets and training that can facilitate lifelong exploration and the ability to pursue careers in a variety of disciplines. 

Interview by Evan Binkley (BA History of Art, 2020). Binkley was an active member of the Humanities Undergraduate Engagement Group. He is a 2020 receipient of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship.