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Having trouble narrowing down time period and region


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Hello!

I am having a lot of trouble narrowing my project down, temporally and geographically. My interests are specifically in Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages. I am mostly interested in Italy, Rome specifically, but also in Byzantium and England. It has been suggested to me by a professor to just focus more on the theme, but I feel like that would be doing me no favors in application season. I have also considered determining time period/geography based on the fit with the program, but I am not quite sure of that, either.

Do you have any tips for narrowing this down?

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Posted (edited)
59 minutes ago, MtrlHstryGrl said:

Hello!

I am having a lot of trouble narrowing my project down, temporally and geographically. My interests are specifically in Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages. I am mostly interested in Italy, Rome specifically, but also in Byzantium and England. It has been suggested to me by a professor to just focus more on the theme, but I feel like that would be doing me no favors in application season. I have also considered determining time period/geography based on the fit with the program, but I am not quite sure of that, either.

Do you have any tips for narrowing this down?

1. Think about what historical questions you want to answer.

2. Think about what period of time and geographical area would best allow you to answer these questions.

3. Think about what sources allow you to answer these questions.

4. Think about the historiographical import of these questions.

5. Consider your language abilities and the availability of sources as potential limitations. Do you know Latin and Greek? Have the archives permanently closed?

Edited by AfricanusCrowther
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17 minutes ago, AfricanusCrowther said:

1. Think about what historical questions you want to answer.

2. Think about what period of time and geographical area would best allow you to answer these questions.

3. Think about what sources allow you to answer these questions.

4. Think about the historiographical import of these questions.

5. Consider your language abilities and the availability of sources as potential limitations. Do you know Latin and Greek? Have the archives permanently closed?

This is very helpful! I do have Latin and I am working on Greek (and plan to take an intensive Greek course next summer), but I am not sure if my Greek will be as good as my Latin coming in. 

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I will say that I am also considering focusing on England (esp. Canterbury), Italy (esp. Rome, but I am also interested in Ravenna and Venice), and Jerusalem, primarily because of pilgrimage and religious sites. I feel like this could help me focus on elite women and the saints/saint worship as well!

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18 hours ago, historygeek said:

Could you do like transnational history? That might be an option?

Alas, transnational history requires the existence of nations.

2 hours ago, MtrlHstryGrl said:

I will say that I am also considering focusing on England (esp. Canterbury), Italy (esp. Rome, but I am also interested in Ravenna and Venice), and Jerusalem, primarily because of pilgrimage and religious sites. I feel like this could help me focus on elite women and the saints/saint worship as well!

Here, you've given a couple of answers to a question. But what is the actual question? 

For example, the question that informs all of my work is "How are lay and religious power related?" In my dissertation, I've explored this through a certain set of sources from certain places and certain times, and that's one answer, but there are many, many more. 

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I would not recommend picking one's fields of interests based upon a department's areas of emphasis. In the event colleagues at different schools compare notes on new graduate students, they will understand the tactic for what it is. Similarly, if you end up in a program with classmates who are true believers, you could be eaten alive.

Can you dive deeper into historiography of your areas of interest? Often, a senior historian will take a star turn in a major journal by writing an extended "state of the field" historiographical essay. (These pieces are often the lead article in an issue.) If you can find several such articles written over a span of years and you study them very closely, you can find information on which pathways need to be explored.

Are there recent collections of essays that could help? Maybe relevant entries in the Oxford Handbook series? What about dissertations completed in the last five, ten, and twenty years?

Another exercise that can be helpful is to pick three journals and go through ten years' worth of volumes: article by article, book review by book review. (IMO, this exercise works better with physical copies, if available.)

Something else to remember is that "creating new knowledge" can be revolutionary or evolutionary, even incrementally so.

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Thank you for the thoughts, everyone! This will likely be a longer post, sort of thinking out loud.

The questions that have really interested me are:

  • Major: How did women form and perform their devotional lives and identities, specifically related to the cult of saints?
  • Specifically, how did noble and elite women perform religion and religious life? How did they use objects, art, and place in this performance?
    • What were the social implications of performance? How did noble and elite women show power and status via religious patronage and performance?
  • How did the role of women in religion and ritual evolve? Was this continuity as Peter Brown suggests, or change?

I will say that I am fairly awful in formulating questions. 

My thoughts regarding place:

  • Italy: I have a specific interest in Rome as a religious center and a cultural center. Rome has seemed like the most obvious choice, but I fear that just Rome is limited. I am also interested in both Ravenna and Venice. I think that these places would all help me explore cultural exchange and religion, and give me some sort of ability to study Byzantium. This would also work the best with my language background & skills. 
  • England: This was the first medieval history that I became truly interested in. I feel like this may give me the best way to study noblewomen in the most traditional sense, and there are tons of sources on women's participation in religion. Further, the religious history is rich and could give lots of Reformation implications. 
  • Byzantium: I am just generally interested in the shift from paganism towards Christianity, and have a genuine love of Byzantine art and archaeology. This would also give me a chance to explore the impact of the Great Schism. The archaeological sources, especially in Greece and Turkey, are also strong. 
  • I do want to fit in a global aspect, if that makes sense, particularly regarding religious cultures and expressions in North Africa and the Middle East, and their presence and legacy in medieval Europe. All this to say, I had the idea of focusing on England (Canterbury), Italy (Rome), and Jerusalem because of my desire to study trans-regionally and globally. 

I am feeling that I may be more flexible in time period. I am interested in late antiquity through the central Middle Ages, and I think that my questions could fit in fairly easily in these. I did speak with a professor from Toronto who suggested that late antiquity would be a good background for setting my project in the early and central Middle Ages. I am just not entirely sure where to place it. I am very interested in the evolution of religion from classical religion to the Reformation. 

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So this is the relevant passage from my SoP,  if that helps:

...the majority of my time has been spent studying a collection of thirteenth-century sermons or collationes preached by the monks of the Cistercian monastery of Foigny, which I am translating for publication. It is through my study of Foigny and its sermons that I first began to be suspicious of monastic claims of stability and isolation, the central topic I will address in my doctoral studies.

Over the past fifty years, medieval monastic historians have become increasingly aware of problems within their source texts. Simply put, the goal of a monastic author differed from that of a modern historian. Through literature and legal documents, monks created a written world which reflected their internal ideals, not lived reality. With this in mind, recent monographs and articles have turned a critical eye on claims that monasteries were located in ‘deserts’, the nature and role of lay brothers, monastic ‘reform’ movements, and even how monasteries followed—or did not follow—the Rule of St. Benedict.

The narrative most scholars have constructed from primary sources (most notably monastic rules) insists that, with the exception of abbots and a few special cases, monks never wandered beyond their monastery’s walls. In the past two decades, this understanding has started to crumble. Scholars of the late Middle Ages have recently challenged this understanding with respect to women, noting that the papal bull Periculoso of 1298 constituted the first real attempt to insist on inclaustration as a necessary condition for being a nun. Based on the decree’s repetition throughout the fourteenth century, however, practice resisted the call to conform to the ideal. Moreover, there was no corresponding decree aimed at men. Did mulieres religiosae have a propensity for wandering not found in their male counterparts, or was monkish migration not a cause for concern?

In stark contrast to the ideal of stabilitas found in monastic sources, texts written by members of the secular clergy often feature monks wandering in the world. The Life of Marie d’Oignies by Jacques de Vitry depicts Cistercian monks not only outside of their cloisters, but even processing as a group through the center of town, inspiring the young Marie to a life of devotion. Through  my own work, I have found that contact and communication across the monastery walls was much more frequent than previously imagined. An examination of Foigny and its sermons provides substantial evidence for the constant flow of ideas, goods, and people through the monastery. Foigny’s monks were constantly engaged in the broader intellectual, social, and political currents of their milieu. They discussed heresy, crusade, scholasticism, the incorporation of female houses, and even the decline of the nearby cathedral school of Laon and the growing careerism of its canons. An examination of Foigny’s cartularies shows an active relationship between the monastery and distant noble patrons, mediated through the sees of Laon and Reims, as well as constant interest in the monastery among the townspeople of Laon. The frequency and nature of these contacts with the outside world constitute clear evidence for the porousness of the cloister walls. By approaching the question of the connections between monasteries and the outside world through both a traditional examination of the textual sources and the application of spatial and network analysis, my doctoral work will shed new light on the lives of medieval monastics.

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3 hours ago, telkanuru said:

So this is the relevant passage from my SoP,  if that helps:

This is fantastic and very helpful! Thank you so much. 

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15 hours ago, MtrlHstryGrl said:

This is fantastic and very helpful! Thank you so much. 

No problem.


I should note that the only similarity this prospectus has to my actual dissertation is in the idea that Cistercian monks are more connected to the world around them than most people suspect.

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