Reclining Madonnas: Changing Iconography of the Nativity of Jesus

Every year when I teach Gothic architecture in Origins of the West,1 I spend two classes on Chartres cathedral. The first day is devoted to the architecture; the second to the decoration, in both sculpture and stained glass. For sculpture, I focus on the west portal, specifically on the Portal of the Incarnation. This consists of a large tympanum featuring the Madonna Enthroned with Angels, surrounded by archivolts with personifications of the 7 liberal arts (one of the reasons I chose this particular portal).

The Portal of the Incarnation, on the west facade of Chartres cathedral.

Below the tympanum are two lintels with scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus. In the bottom register, from left to right, are found the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Closeup of the lintels. The Circumcision of Jesus is in the upper register, in the center. In the lower register, reading left to right, are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity (center), and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Today (naturally) I want to concentrate on the Nativity.

Detail of the Nativity in the Portal of the Incarnation, Chartres Cathedral.

Notice the iconography: Mary is reclining on a low couch underneath what looks like a dining room table; a swaddled Jesus sits on top of the table; Joseph stands to the left and an angel is on the right. One of the things I point out to my students is the Eucharistic imagery of putting the body of Jesus on a table—especially since the scene directly above, in the upper register, is the Circumcision, where the infant Jesus is cut (and presumably bleeds) by a priest at an altar.

What I always found curious, however, is the representation of Mary lying on the bed. Mind you, this would have been a sensible thing for her to do, having just given birth. For a long time I assumed that this iconography was unique to this sculpture, but then I discovered that Mary is in the same reclining position in the Incarnation window, a stained-glass window in the west façade of the cathedral.

The Nativity of Jesus, in the Incarnation window, west facade, Chartres Cathedral.

So maybe it was a regional peculiarity, I thought. After all, I know what Nativity scenes look like—I’ve got one that I set up every year, that was given to my mother as a child. Maybe you have one too, or you’ve seen them set up in churches or parks.  Mary is always depicted kneeling, looking down at her child, who is lying in a manger set on the ground.

My nativity scene, given to my mother when she was a child.

My regional hypothesis was disproved, however, when I discovered another instance of a reclining Madonna in the Nativity scene in the Sienese painter Duccio’s Maestà altarpiece of 1308. In this one, she appears to be resting on a giant red beanbag chair (ok, I guess it’s probably a blanket or a cloak). A google image search turns up further medieval examples.

So it appears that it was quite commonplace in the Middle Ages for Mary to be depicted lying down after the birth of Jesus. How do we account for my mother’s Nativity set, then? When and why did the iconography of the Nativity change from the reclining Madonna to a kneeling Madonna?

The answers are, in the late 14th century, and because of St Birgitta of Sweden.2 Birgitta Birgersdottir was born into the Swedish nobility in 1302 or 1303. She married Ulf Gudmarsson at age 13 and bore 8 children. After her husband’s death, she felt called to a spiritual life and began having revelations, which were recorded by her confessors. She made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1350 and remained there, never returning to Sweden. Like her contemporary Catherine of Siena (whom she probably never met), she was a prophetic voice for the reform of the Church, in particular advocating for the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon.3

In 1372, the year before she died, Birgitta made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, she had a vision of the Nativity of Jesus, described in book VII of her Revelations:

. . . the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer, and she kept her back toward the manger and her face lifted to heaven toward the east. And so, with raised hands and with her eyes intent on heaven, she was as if suspended in an ecstasy of contemplation, inebriated with divine sweetness. And while she was thus in prayer, I saw the One lying in her womb then move; and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. . . . I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness. . . .

When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!”

From Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations, ed. Marguerite Tjader Harris, trans. Albert Ryle Kezel, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 203.

Here we find the familiar setup: Mary on her knees gazing down at her newborn child. I was surprised to read that in Birgitta’s vision, she saw Mary actually give birth in the kneeling position; I had assumed that it was postpartum.

The new iconography based on Birgitta’s vision did not take long to show up in Italian art. One of the earliest representations, by Niccolo di Tommaso (d. 1376), depicts Birgitta herself (in the lower right corner) in the act of having her vision.

The Nativity with St Birgitta of Sweden, by Niccolo di Tommaso,. Now in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican.

Another early example, by Lorenzo Monaco, dates to 1406-1410. In this representation we also see the baby Jesus glowing with “great and ineffable light.”

Nativity by Lorenzo Monaco, 1406-1410. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By the 15th century, the iconography of the kneeling Madonna had become standard. But someone ought to produce a set of Nativity figurines featuring a reclining Madonna—I think there would be a market for it.


Or, WoO Hoo! It’s Beethoven Day!

Obligatory public domain portrait of Beethoven

Happy Beethoven Day! Have you made your plans yet for #Beethoven250? This will be a year-long celebration in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

I got an early start on the festivities on Saturday, when I performed Beethoven’s Sonatina in F major at this semester’s recital for adult music students at Frederick Community College (FCC), where I study piano. Or did I? That is, I really performed it (from memory, I might add), but is it really by Beethoven?

Linda Benoit (left) and me, two adult piano students of John Wickelgren at the December 2019 recital at FCC. Linda has a private piano studio and plays advanced repertoire; I’m, well, a dilettante.

Soon after I started learning it, my teacher at FCC, Dr. John Wickelgren, casually mentioned one day, “This probably isn’t by Beethoven.”

I said, “What are you talking about? It says ‘Beethoven’ right there on the music.”

He explained, “It’s got an Anhang number. That’s the appendix to the Kinsky-Halm Beethoven catalog. It means that the attribution is probably spurious.”

I asked, “On what grounds? What’s the evidence?”

He replied, “I don’t know. You’ll have to look in Kinsky-Halm. I’m not even sure if that’s a hyphenated name or if it’s two different people.”


The Mount Saint Mary’s library didn’t have the Kinsky-Halm catalog, so while I was waiting for the Interlibrary Loan to arrive I tried to see what I could find out online. First of all, Kinsky and Halm were two people, Georg L. Kinsky and Hans Halm. Georg Kinsky (1882-1951), according to Grove Music Online, was a lecturer in musicology at the University of Cologne from 1921-1932, after which, his biography states ominously, “he worked privately.” The bio doesn’t say, but I assume he was Jewish, especially since it notes that he was sentenced to hard labor in 1944 (no further details). Kinsky survived the war and worked on the Beethoven catalog until his death in 1951. The catalog was completed by Hans Halm (1898-1965), the music librarian at the Munich State Library, and published in 1955 as Das Werk Beethovens / Thematisch-Bibliographisches Verzeichnis seiner sämtlichen vollendeten Kompositions (Beethoven’s Works / Thematic-Bibliographic List of His Completed Compositions).

Once the catalog arrived, I eagerly looked to see what it said about my Sonatina. It’s one of a group of two, along with a Sonatina in G major. Both of them are staples of the intermediate piano repertoire. Neither has an opus number, which means they were not published by Beethoven during his lifetime.

Nor are the two Sonatinas listed among the Werke ohne Opuszahl (“WoO”), or “Works without opus number,” pieces that Kinsky determined were definitely by Beethoven but that remained unpublished during his lifetime. There are over 200 works in this category, some of them never or rarely performed but others quite well-known. The most famous of these is probably WoO 59, more commonly known as “Für Elise.”1 The two Sonatinas are in another category, the Anhang, or appendix. These are works that have been attributed to Beethoven, but the attribution is doubtful. The Sonatinas are Anhang 5, numbers 1 and 2.

Two questions need to be answered. First, how did the Sonatinas come to be attributed to Beethoven? Second, why is that attribution now considered to be spurious? In other words, why are they in the Anhang and not the WoO? The entry in Kinsky-Halm provides information to help answer both questions.2

In answer to the first, the Sonatinas were published under Beethoven’s name, during his lifetime, as early as 1807 (Beethoven died in 1827). The 1807 publication was by a publisher named Louis-Rudolphus, located in Altona (near Hamburg, in northern Germany). The title-page reads, “II SONATINES / pour le Piano-Forte / Composées par / L. van Beethoven. / Altona chéz Louis Rudolphus.”

In answer to the second, Beethoven had no known relationship with the publisher in Altona. Furthermore, no manuscripts of the Sonatinas survive, nor did Beethoven ever mention them in any of his writings. It appears that the publisher thought that the Beethoven name would sell sheet music, so he attached it to someone else’s composition, and the attribution stuck.3 If this is true, then two people were cheated: Beethoven, who never received a pfennig for the use of his name, and the unknown actual composer, whose two charming works have been performed for over 100 years without his receiving credit.

So it looks like the two Sonatinas that are typically the first Beethoven works a beginning pianist learns—even before “Für Elise Therese”—are not by Beethoven at all. And I’ve got to admit, they don’t actually sound very much like Beethoven. They’re lovely, but they have no particularly Beethovenian characteristics (like sforzandi, sudden strong accents in unexpected places). They sound like the works of a run-of-the-mill classical-era composer.

In classical and medieval studies, we have a way of referring to exactly the scenario I’ve described regarding the two Beethoven Sonatinas. If a work was at one time ascribed to a particular author (perhaps because of the subject matter, or because it was included in a manuscript with other works by that author), but further research has shown that it couldn’t have been by that person (typically on chronological or linguistic grounds), and there’s no evidence to determine who really wrote it, then the work is identified as being by “Pseudo-[name].” For example, one of the sources I used in my dissertation was an early-medieval theologian referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.” In my recently-concluded Ancient Greece class, we read a description of Athenian democracy originally attributed to Xenophon but now identified as “Pseudo-Xenophon.”4

I’ve never seen this usage applied in a musicological context, but I propose that it should be. Henceforth, the Sonatinas in F and G, Anhang 5 nos. 1 and 2, shall be identified as having been composed by “Pseudo-Beethoven.” You heard it here first.

BONUS: Here’s an unusual performance of the F major Sonatina, by Tobias Koch, who added his own improvisatory flourishes.

The Huguccian Moment: Medieval Origins of the Declaration of Independence

In memoriam Brian Tierney, part 2

Brian Tierney’s portrait as president of the American Catholic Historical Association, 1965.

I wrote this essay originally for a summer faculty seminar at Mount St Mary’s University held in 2007 on the American founding, directed by Dr Peter Dorsey of the English department. I learned most of the medieval material from the graduate seminars I took from Brian Tierney at Cornell: Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, Church and State in the Middle Ages, Medieval Conciliarism, and Medieval Canon Law, as well as from his published works as specified in the notes. I publish it here as a tribute to him.

A Brian Tierney bookshelf.

In the preface to his 1927 book The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, Charles Homer Haskins wrote,

“The title of this book will appear to many to contain a flagrant contradiction. A renaissance in the twelfth century! Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light and progress and freedom of the Italian Renaissance which followed? How could there be a renaissance in the Middle Ages, when men had no eye for the joy and beauty and knowledge of this passing world, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?”

Haskins’ rhetorical questions apply equally to my subtitle. Medieval Origins of the Declaration of Independence! Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light and progress and freedom of the Enlightenment? How could the Middle Ages have anything to do with the Declaration of Independence, when medieval people knew nothing of natural rights, government by consent, or a right of rebellion, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?

Haskins justified his title this way: “The answer is that the continuity of history rejects such sharp and violent contrasts between successive periods, and that modern research shows us the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed.” 1 The historiographical movement Haskins represented has been termed “The Revolt of the Medievalists”; this is the historiographical tradition in which Brian Tierney worked. I would like to extend this revolt to tracing the medieval roots of the Declaration.

In an episode of the 1980’s sitcom Family Ties, Alex Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, dreams that he is watching Thomas Jefferson (played by Alex’s father in the dream) draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition to proposing a few changes in wording (“try ‘self-evident,’ Mr. Jefferson”), Alex also suggests that he use “brown crinkly paper” to write it on. 2 The scene works because not only do we know what the Declaration is supposed to sound like—we know that it says “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” not “really obvious”—we know what it’s supposed to look like. And what it looks like is medieval.

Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton encouraging Thomas Jefferson (his father Steven Keaton, played by Michael Gross) as he writes the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t produce the famous version on the brown crinkly paper (actually parchment, which is also what medieval documents were written on); his handwritten draft survives, written in a surprisingly legible hand and with no special formatting. After the final text of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the Continental Congress directed that the text be “engrossed on parchment.”3 This task was undertaken by Timothy Matlack, assistant to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress. 4 The layout of Matlack’s version follows point by point the layout of medieval papal documents.

Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Here we see the familiar image of the official copy of the Declaration below a privilege issued by Pope Gregory IX in 1234. The languages and the scripts are different, of course, but otherwise the two documents look strikingly similar. Both highlight their opening words in larger letters that use a different script from the main body of the text.  Both occasionally vary the script used in the body. Both have witnesses’ signatures, each of which is accompanied by a distinguishing flourish, arranged in vertical columns at the bottom of the page, with the main signatures (John Hancock and Pope Gregory IX) larger and in the center.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Timothy Matlack had a papal charter next to him when he dipped his quill into the ink to begin writing “In Congress.” My hypothesis is that the visual format of ecclesiastical documents influenced the look of royal documents, probably by means of clergymen working in royal chanceries—it’s no accident that “cleric” and “clerk” are the same word in Latin (clericus). Then I suspect that colonial charters followed the format of other royal documents, and the colonial charters influenced the look of the Declaration. Someday I’ll take the time to document this hypothesis (yet another retirement project!).

This same path was followed by several of the important ideas in the Declaration.  Concepts developed in the church, especially by canon lawyers, were applied to secular governments, including the kingdom of England, and then some of them crossed the Atlantic. These ideas include the existence of natural rights, government by consent, and the right of rebellion.

Among the truths that the Declaration of Independence holds to be self-evident is that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, clearly, is drawing on the early modern philosophical tradition of natural rights, especially as developed by John Locke (whose formulation was “life, liberty, and property”). But the early modern rights theorists were themselves drawing on a medieval tradition that began with the twelfth-century Decretists and really got going in the fourteenth-century disputes between the Franciscans and the papacy, a tradition that has been documented in the works of Brian Tierney and which I studied in his courses.

Gratian’s Decretum is a collection of canon law texts compiled around 1140; it includes papal decrees, conciliar pronouncements, and excerpts from the Church Fathers, all arranged topically. Many of the texts contradict each other (the collection’s official title is Concordia Discordantium Canonum, or “Concordance of Discordant Canons”), so canon lawyers immediately began to write commentaries that explored the issued raised by these opposing texts.  These commentators on the Decretum are called Decretists.

One of the issues the twelfth-century Decretists debated in their commentaries was the origins of private property. The Decretum includes a text that states, “by natural law all things are common.” Human institutions are supposed to reflect natural law, so the Decretists needed somehow to account for the existence of private property. The Decretist Huguccio, for example, concluded that “common” (commune in Latin) meant “to be shared [communicanda] in time of necessity.” But otherwise, individuals had a right to their own property. 5

All the definitions, distinctions, and speculations of the Decretists regarding property were put to good use in the fourteenth-century Franciscan poverty disputes. For centuries Benedictine monks had given up all personal possessions when they joined the monastery, but the monastery as a whole owned plenty of property which the monks were able to share (their model was the early Christian community described in Acts 4:32-35, which “held everything in common”). In his attempt to follow the commandments of the Gospel literally, Francis of Assisi had embraced absolute poverty, enjoining his friars, as the formula had it, to own nothing “either individually or in common.” The problem is that it’s difficult to live that way, especially as the order grew larger and expanded its ministry. The working solution, established in the bull Ordinem vestrem issued in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV, was that buildings, furniture, books, clothing and so forth donated to the Franciscans would be owned by the church as a whole and just “used” by the Franciscans.

This compromise distinguishing between ownership and use was not acceptable to all the Franciscans, however. A splinter group, known as the Spirituals, saw this compromise as a corruption of Franciscan ideals (and therefore of the Gospel). They insisted on what they called “poor use”—it wasn’t enough simply to renounce legal ownership; one should actually live in poverty. The papacy saw the Spirituals as dangerous, because they could easily go from claiming to be holier than churchmen who lived in luxury to claiming that all property held by the church was illegitimate, because it was contrary to the absolute poverty of Christ and the Apostles.

The Spirituals’ position played into the hands of supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor against the temporal claims of the papacy. Faced with this threat, in 1323 Pope John XXII, in the bull Cum inter nonnullos, declared the belief that Christ and the Apostles were absolutely poor to be heretical. To justify the papal position, opponents of the Spirituals asserted a natural right to property. They argued that it is impossible to renounce this right (in other words, it is inalienable) because, while one might give up one’s possessions, one can never renounce the right to one’s own body or to items consumable in use (like food—how can you say you don’t own the food that you swallow and digest?). The rich tradition of medieval discussion of rights was passed on to the seventeenth-century theorists. 6

Another self-evident truth found in the Declaration of Independence is that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that this consent could best be expressed by means of a representative assembly such as a Parliament developed in the Middle Ages. Eighteenth-century American Whigs frequently referred to the Magna Carta as one of the sources of their rights as Englishmen. Item twelve of Magna Carta states that the King agrees that “No scutage or aid [types of monetary contributions to the crown] may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent.” (This, of course, is the urtext for “No taxation without representation”).

But an additional source for the idea of consent comes not from common law but from canon law. Beginning around 1200, canonists began to cite a formula they found in Roman law (although in a completely different context 7), Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur, or “What touches all ought to be approved by all,” when referring first to the operation of ecclesiastical corporations (such as monasteries, religious orders or cathedral chapters) and then as a justification for church councils. 8

Soon the phrase began to appear in secular contexts as well. For example, in 1293, the government of the Florentine popolo issued a law code called the Ordinances of Justice whose first rubric echoes Quod omnes tangit:  “that is agreed to be most perfect which . . . is approved by the judgment of all.” 9 Two years later, King Edward I of England issued a summons to Parliament that included these words: “a most just law, established by the careful providence of sacred princes, exhorts and decrees that what affects all, by all should be approved.” 10

When a government based on consent begins to act tyrannically, wrote Jefferson, the people have a right to rebel against it: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” This passage is another part of the Declaration that is usually considered to be Lockean. But again, medieval canonists also wrote about circumstances in which a people might remove their ruler. In the twelfth century, Decretists became concerned about what would happen if the pope were to be a heretic. This would be very dangerous, because a heretical pope could infect the faithful with his incorrect teachings and thereby jeopardize their eternal salvation. The Decretists concluded that the Church, as represented in a General Council, could depose a heretical pope. But some Decretists took their logic a bit further—what if the pope committed not heresy but some other serious sin? Given his position, wouldn’t that be just as bad? What if, for example, he were a fornicator? Huguccio imagines the situation:

“But I believe that it is the same in any notorious crime, that the pope can be accused and condemned if, being admonished, he is not willing to desist. What then? Behold, he steals publicly, he fornicates publicly, he keeps a concubine publicly, he has intercourse with her publicly in the church, near the altar or on it, and being admonished will not desist. Shall he not be accused? Shall he not be condemned? Is it not like heresy to scandalize the church in such a fashion?”11

Huguccio’s list of imaginary papal sins reminds me of the crimes Jefferson attributed to George III. Huguccio denied that a General Council could actually sit in judgment on a sinful pope, because a pope can be judged by no one. Rather, because of his sins he was incapable of being pope and therefore automatically deposed himself. The Council simply “declared” that he had done so. Is that possibly what Jefferson thought he was doing when he listed the king’s crimes as part of declaring independence?

The twelfth-century canonists were thinking hypothetically, but in the late fourteenth-century a situation actually arose in which the pope appeared to be endangering the whole body of the church. During the Great Schism, which began in 1378, first two, then (after 1409) three men all claimed to be the legitimately elected pope and all of them refused any concession or compromise. Drawing on the ideas of Decretists like Huguccio, writers known as Conciliarists argued that in such a dire situation the whole church, as represented in a General Council, had a right to depose the schismatic popes. The first attempt to do so, the Council of Pisa, failed (that’s where the third pope came from), but the 1415 Council of Constance successfully asserted the powers of a General Council, deposed all three popes, and elected a new one.

The Conciliarists, however, went beyond the emergency situation; they believed that the church would be better off if General Councils met regularly, instead of only in a crisis, in hopes that crises would not develop. In other words, they believed in parliamentary government for the church. In 1417 the Council of Constance issued the decree Frequens, which stipulated that from then on General Councils should meet at regular intervals. 12

The Conciliarists, as you may have noticed, ultimately were not successful; the Catholic Church did not become a constitutional monarchy. But their writings were eagerly adapted by seventeenth-century English Parliamentarians during the English Civil War—wherever they read “Pope” they substituted “King,” and for “General Council” they substituted “Parliament.” The 1689 English Bill of Rights includes a provision “that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.” This was clearly inspired partly by Charles I’s failure to summon Parliament between 1629 and 1640, but it is also a definite echo of Frequens.

Alan Gibson, in Interpreting the Founding, characterizes J.G.A. Pocock’s republican approach to the American founding as

“a sweeping narrative that traces the transmissions and transformations of the civic humanist tradition of political thought through three reconstructions: the first in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Florence (“The Machiavellian Moment”), the second in early modern England (“The Harringtonian Moment”), and a third in revolutionary America.” 13

I would like to suggest that Pocock’s “sweeping narrative” didn’t begin far enough back, and further that it is itself trapped in a sweeping narrative invented in the Renaissance and strengthened in the Enlightenment—the threefold periodization of the western tradition into ancient, medieval and modern. American history is modern history; it therefore by definition can’t be medieval. Brian Tierney, the historian who has done the most to uncover the medieval, and especially the canonical, roots of modern political ideas, has written that the history of constitutional thought can’t be understood “unless we consider the whole period from 1150 to 1650 as a single era of essentially continuous development.” 14

Or, to put it another way, perhaps we should consider the ideological origins of the American Revolution to begin, not with a Machiavellian, but a Huguccian Moment.

Brian Tierney with several of his former students in 2005, at a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Foundations of Conciliar Theory.

Getting Medieval: An Intellectual Journey

In memoriam Brian Tierney, part 1

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t yet done any posts on a medieval topic, my actual scholarly specialty (or, you could say, the one thing I’m not a dilettante in). My dissertation director (or Doktorvater, as they say in German), died recently, so now seemed like a good time to remedy this situation. These entries will serve as my memorial to Brian Tierney, medieval history professor emeritus at Cornell University, who died on December 1, 2019, at the age of 97.

Back in 1990 I gave a paper at a medieval studies conference in New Hampshire. One night there was a dinner for the participants, most of whom didn’t know each other. Someone at my table decided to do an icebreaker and asked everyone to say what had inspired them to go into medieval studies. People gave only two answers: everyone either said it was reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or having an inspiring teacher. At that point I had not yet read Ivanhoe; my answer was “inspiring teachers,” namely, Thomas Turley, the medieval history professor at my undergraduate institution, Santa Clara University, and Brian Tierney.

Me and my undergraduate advisor, along with some other Tierney students from his generation, at the American Historical Assocation convention in San Francisco in 1983.

I didn’t start college with the intent of becoming a medieval historian, or indeed any kind of historian, or even any kind of academic. After taking a school trip in ninth grade to Washington, D.C. and visiting the Smithsonian, I’d dreamed of becoming a museum curator, and I entered Santa Clara University planning to do an interdisciplinary self-designed major that would prepare me for that. In the meantime, I got myself a job as a student worker at our university museum, the De Saisset.

You couldn’t propose the self-designed major until sophomore year, so at the beginning of that year I was still undeclared. I signed up for a course in Ancient and Medieval History, taught by Tom Turley, to fulfill a requirement for the University Honors Program; I also registered for the first course in the Philosophy sequence (also required for the Honors Program) and the first course in the Art History sequence (which I figured would be useful for a future museum curator).1 In other words, I was studying ancient Greek history, philosophy, and art all at the same time, and similarly throughout the rest of the term. Many years later, when I began teaching at Mount St Mary’s, we would call such paired courses (we only did two at a time) a “cluster”—we clustered history courses with either art or literature. Back in 1977, I didn’t have a name for what I was doing, but I knew I loved it.

When we got to the medieval part of the history course, Turley assigned us the book Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, written by his own Doktorvater, Brian Tierney. Crisis is an anthology of primary sources on the medieval conflicts between empire and papacy, introduced by Tierney’s own historical commentary. I was hooked. I had known nothing about this topic; I probably just assumed that back then the pope ran everything. I had never heard of events like the Investiture Contest. I found it all fascinating, and loved reading both the primary documents and Tierney’s clear and insightful analysis of them. I thought to myself, “I wish I could do something like that.” This was the beginning of my conversion to the academic life.

The edition of Crisis of Church and State that we used back in 1977. It has since been reprinted in the series “Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching.”

By the end of that year, I’d ditched the idea of an interdisciplinary major and declared a history major (I’d decided that even to prepare for a museum job I could benefit from the rigor of disciplinary study). The next year I signed up for Turley’s medieval history course and wrote my first history research paper on the eleventh-century pope Gregory VII, whom I’d first encountered in Crisis of Church and State. That summer, at Turley’s suggestion, I expanded my Gregory VII paper from 10 to 25 pages. We didn’t have a required senior project in either the history major or the Honors Program; I didn’t do the expanded version to fulfill any requirement or even for course credit. I did it because I thought it was worth doing.2 By this point I found myself thinking how much more I enjoyed research and writing than I enjoyed working in the museum, and eventually I decided to pursue an academic calling. When it was time to apply to graduate school, I figured I’d probably end up at UC Berkeley, just 50 miles up the road, but just for fun I also applied to Cornell University, where Brian Tierney taught (I liked the idea of studying with my teacher’s teacher). Much to my surprise, Cornell not only accepted me but also made me a better financial offer than Berkeley. So off to Ithaca I went.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved living in Ithaca. I even loved the winters and took up ice skating to take advantage of them. I loved my courses. I didn’t end up writing my dissertation about Gregory VII; I chose a new topic after hearing about it in a course on medieval and Renaissance Florence taught by another inspiring teacher, John Najemy. I loved my topic—the political thought of the Florentine Dominican Remigio dei Girolami—and I loved working with both Tierney and Najemy on it. And, of course, I also found love—I met my husband in a Cornell dining hall.

NEXT: What I learned about the Middle Ages from Brian Tierney.