The novelist L.P Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” With that in mind, I treat every history course as if it were study abroad, and create immersion experiences to help students encounter the other of the past. This encounter occurs by engaging the primary sources, those documents and artifacts left behind by earlier peoples. I introduce students to the widest spectrum of sources, in order to capture the imaginations of the widest range of learning styles.
For example, students who prefer texts do well with written saints’ lives, which at first glance seem to express outrageous superstition, but on closer reading reveal the structures of family life, and the social practices of ordinary people. Visual and tactile learners benefit from the study and creation of medieval books as objects, while gaining an appreciation of pre-industrial production and reading practices. Kinesthetic learners ponder the Dance Plague of 1518—when hundreds of medieval villagers died of exhaustion after a month of non-stop dance—by learning and dancing the rondel and the volta.
This is how I try to make history come alive.
I write for both academic and popular audiences.
I am currently working on two memoirs. One is about teaching and struggling with issues of academic freedom. The other concerns a 1300-mile pilgrimage I undertook from the Abbaye du Val-des-Choux in Burgundy, France, to Pluscarden Abbey in northern Scotland.
My academic publications include New Monks in Old Habits: The Formation of the Caulite Monastic Order, 1193-1267 (2014), The Medieval Church: A Brief History, 2nd ed. (2013), and “Santiago de Compostela,” in Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage (2010).
My popular writings include “The Battle of Falkirk,” in Medieval LEGO (2015), “Hanging Little Joe on the Suburban Ponderosa, Or, What has the Middle Ages to do with the Old West?” in the Journal of the West (2015), and Hold Fast to What is Good: A History of Augsburg University in 10 Objects (appearing in October 2019).
My current research concerns the medieval practice of ‘death-bed entry’ to monastic life. Medieval people believed that taking the monastic habit, even at the last minute, meant no time in purgatory, and a clear path to heaven. But what would happen if a knight or noblewoman who had become a religious did not immediately die, and then had a change of heart? Such occurrences were common enough that they caused many monastic orders to reconsider the practice, and to defend in court the promises and donations made to them. The practice also drew criticism from reformers and satirists, such as Gerald of Wales, who claimed that the entrants were insincere and the monasteries that accepted them were simply greedy.
In addition to a monograph and textbook, I have also published articles in Cîteaux; Teaching History; Revue Mabillon; The Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage; The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writings; and the customizable class reader Exploring the European Past.