I recently read an obituary of Dennis Austin, the inventor of PowerPoint. I must admit, that although I’ve used PowerPoint for years, I never thought about it having an inventor. If I’d thought about it at all, I probably would have assumed that it was developed by a team at Microsoft. Wrong on both counts—it was just two guys, Dennis Austin and his colleague Robert Gaskins, who created what was originally called “Presenter” in 1987 while working at a company called Forethought (which was then bought by Microsoft later that year). The first Windows version was released in 1990.
My learning about the origins of PowerPoint was timely, because my recent retirement and the resulting need to empty my office of 35 years of accumulated books, files, and other teaching materials has occasioned me to look back on my career. One of the items I found tucked away on an upper shelf was an empty Kodak slide carousel, which got me thinking about my experiences with visual materials in the classroom, both as student and teacher, in the days BP (Before PowerPoint). Of course, my art history professor at Santa Clara University, Brigid Barton, used slides every day. Her classroom was equipped with not one but two slide projectors, so she could display two images side-by-side for comparison. She was an expert at both filling her carousels and at knowing when to advance each projector so that the correct images were displayed.
I also remember her telling us that her husband had visited her classes one day and noticed that the students near him had their heads down, writing in their notebooks only the “vital statistics” of the artworks (artist, title, medium, date) and nothing about what Dr Barton was saying about the significance of the image, which they weren’t looking at. As soon as she learned this, she started handing out a numbered slide list at the beginning of each class, allowing for more effective note-taking and, more importantly, more effective looking.
Whereas slideshows were expected in art history classes—“art in the dark,” as they’re known to students—they were much less common in my other classes. The exception was a Cornell University graduate school history course on Ancient Greece taught by Barry Strauss, for which I was a TA. Like Professor Barton, Professor Strauss used slides in virtually every class. But unlike in art history, where the artworks are the main course content and the entire class period consists of looking at and talking about the slides, Professor Strauss might have just a few slides in his carousel that he would use to help elucidate the topic of the day (one of my jobs as TA was to advance the slides on his command).
The one that sticks out in my memory was in a lecture on fifth-century Athenian democracy. The Athenians had a practice whereby they could vote into a ten-year exile someone they feared might become a tyrant. The ballots for this election were broken pieces of pottery, on which the voters would scratch the name of the person they wished to exile. The ancient Greek word for a broken piece of pottery was ostrakon (plural ostraka), from which we get the words “ostracize” and “ostracism.” Archaeologists have found many of these ostraka with names of prominent Athenian politicians scratched into them. The day Professor Strauss lectured on the workings of Athenian democracy, he showed a picture of these ostraka, which made the concept both clear and memorable.
When I started teaching my own classes while still in grad. school, I took Professors Barton and Strauss as two of my role models, wishing to use images as effectively as they did. Accordingly, I made an effort to build up my own personal slide collection. In 1984, I took a summer course in medieval religious history held in Assisi, Italy; there, I bought slides of the frescoes in the basilica of San Francesco, attributed to Giotto, that I planned to use when teaching the life of St. Francis (fortunately, the lira was weak against the dollar that summer). A couple of years later, my husband and I honeymooned in England, and I used slide film to capture images in Colchester, Lincoln, and York that I would be able to use in a course on Medieval Cities that I was scheduled to teach that fall.
But once I began teaching full-time at Mount St. Mary’s University, I was hindered in my desire to enhance my courses with images by a limited slide library at my new institution. I was often reduced to expedients like holding a book open to the relevant color plate, and then passing it around the room. This lack of access to images became critical in 2000 when we implemented a new core curriculum that included a required interdisciplinary humanities course, titled “Origins of the West,” to be taught by faculty in history, literature, and the arts and incorporating content from all those disciplines. Now we not only needed a greater selection of slides of art and architecture; we needed them in multiple copies for multiple instructors.
Fortunately, I had just taken a technology workshop in which I made my first PowerPoint, on the Parthenon. I realized that this new technology would let me do everything I needed. I could take all the images I wanted from the internet (no need to buy slides); put two images next to each other on the same slide (no need for two projectors); and include identifying information directly on the slide (no need for a separate slide list). And when it was done I could share it with my colleagues (no need for multiple slide sets).
My first presentation was on the Parthenon; I was still using a much-revised version of it when I retired. I subsequently made hundreds more—the computer folder where I save them currently contains 1638 files (although some of these are probably duplicate versions of the same presentation, or files students sent to me to accompany their class presentations). Among these 1638 PowerPoints are one on Athenian ostracism with pictures of ostraka; one on the Life of St Francis using jpgs of the Giotto frescoes instead of the physical slides I bought back in 1984; and one on medieval cities that includes a scan of one of the photos I took on my honeymoon.
I know that PowerPoint has the reputation of being deadly dull (just google “PowerPoint cartoons” for plenty of satirical takes on this reputation). But I assure you, mine are brilliant. I used to do an activity when I taught our first-year seminar in which I directed students first to make a bad PowerPoint and then to present it badly. They had lots of fun with this assignment—illegible fonts! too-small type! insufficient color contrast! distracting animations! reading bullet points verbatim with your back to the audience! Hopefully, it taught them, and reminded me, what not to do.
Apart from these design considerations, however, the most important rule is not to think, “I need to make a PowerPoint; what should I put in it?” but rather, “I want to present some material that is best understood visually; how can PowerPoint help me do that?” So thank you, Dennis Austin, for making it possible for me to do that.
We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.
We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2
Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.
We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4
The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5
I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)
In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:
Military Victories and Conquests
Diplomacy and Peacemaking
Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)
If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brianwhere John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”
Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.
As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6
Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.
Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8
The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9
Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.
I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.
Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.
In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae: 10
When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.
As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11
The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.
Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):
Teach them stuff (content).
Teach them to do stuff (skills).
Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).
The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
NEXT: What I learned about the Middle Ages from Brian