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.

  1. I think my fourth course (we only did four at a time in the quarter system) was Beginning Latin, so that was related also.
  2. Although it did win the Redwood Prize, the department’s award for best historical essay.