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Works in Progress

The following is a listing of current works-in-progress, including my dissertation, which demonstrates the practical application of the principles outlined in my Research Statement.

Each listing has a synopsis of the project.  To read further, click the inverted caret (  ) to expand the section.

Dissertation Project

Seeing all the  Anguilles: Eels in the Cultural Landscape of Medieval and Early Modern England

Synopsis:  This study examines the place of eels in medieval and early modern England, demonstrating the important role the fish played in English economic and political shifts from the tenth through the seventeenth centuries. Eels were both as a commodity and a de facto currency. Their prevalence in the marketplace was echoed in art, literature, and language, and the fish made up a critical component of medieval English identity. Gradual changes in demographics and land use shifted the locus of English eel culture to London and forced a reliance on imported eels sold by Dutch merchants. This produced political pressures within England’s rapidly nationalizing economy which, compounded by wars with the Dutch, served to finally decouple eels from English identity by the end of the seventeenth century.    

The project began with my observation that, beginning in 1600, mobile Dutch eel ships appeared on maps of London as permanent civic landmarks. Trying to understand that cartographic curiosity has led to a study that implicates eels as an important and under-considered element active across long stretches of England’s past. The story stretches back to ancient Mediterranean cultures of eel-eating, which the Romans brought with them to Britain. The fish became increasingly important to the English after the Romans departed, and I argue that, from the seventh century through the mid-seventeenth century, the English relationship with their eels impacted issues of market economy growth, state formation, and cultural identity. The tenth-century English economy relied on eels both as a tradeable commodity and as a de facto currency; English taxpayers sent more than 500,000 eels per year to their landlords, and millions more eels moved through inland economies. I detail how the fish’s prevalence in the marketplace was echoed in art, literature, language, and toponyms, and argue that eels made up a critical component of medieval English identity. I show that changes in demographics and land use over time helped shift the locus of English eel culture to London and forced an increasing reliance on imported eels. By the start of the seventeenth century the English in London were purchasing most of their eels from Dutch merchants, whose boats carved out quasi-sovereign zones on the Thames. However, the necessity of importing an inherently native piece of their own identity produced political and social pressures within England’s rapidly centralizing national economy. These points of friction, compounded by wars with the Dutch, served to finally decouple eels from English identity by the end of the seventeenth century – a fact reflected in the eel ships’ disappearance from maps of London even though the Dutch retained an actual space on the Thames through the early twentieth century.

Part of this project addressed the untold and mistold story the Dutch eel ships in London. Because of the insight into the production of London space that they afford, the ships’ history and representation on the Thames between 1600 and 1699 warrant particular attention.  That 100-year window, when the eel ships make their appearance in images and accounts of London as a novel part of the cityscape, saw drastic changes in both the spatial practices of Londoners and in the representations of the city as a conceptual spatial unit by mapmakers, artists and writers.

This project speaks to more pressing ecological concerns, as well. European eels are currently experiencing a population collapse connected to habitat destruction, even while they are the most illegally trafficked animal on earth. This issue has received little public attention, in part because Europeans, having ceased to eat eels, have become detached from their history with the fish. By reestablishing and contextualizing that history, I hope to offer an avenue by which to engage public interest for the plight of the eel and its wetland habitats.

Because this project covers a broad temporal range, I have taken an explicitly interdisciplinary approach. I work with primary source materials through archival research, close reading of literary texts, and analysis of maps and artwork, while using digital tools for mapping and distance reading. At the same time, I pull together a wide range of diverse secondary studies, and employ theoretical approaches from literary criticism, critical cartography, and landscape architecture. By working with an encompassing historical and methodological lens, I make connections between disciplines and across barriers of academic periodization. The resulting dissertation offers a model for reevaluating the effacing effect of modern cultural preferences on historical patterns, and demonstrates the value of a longue durée interdisciplinary approach to historical inquiry.

In November, 2017, I presented part of these ideas at Tübingen University’s Winter School for Global Frontiers as a funded participant.  I argued that the Dutch presence on the Thames needs to be understood in terms of tensions between external and internal frontier spaces.  The Dutch became visible in the cityscape in part because of English efforts to expand the country by draining the Fens, and the century of contestation over their position was essentially a process of boundary-fixing.  It was only through the later development of a convoluted spatial myth that the issue was eventually resolved.

A poster summarizing my argument for the establishment of Dutch frontiers on the Thames may be found here.

Other Works and Projects in Progress

Insider Information:  The Worlds of Medieval Memory    

Synopsis: A book project planned with Anna Waymack investigating the ways that medieval people used maps, spatial knowledge, and geographic ideation to help shape both their memories and their self-identities.     

This project expands on a forthcoming stand-alone article in the Fall, 2018 issue of The Medieval Globe, “Thinking Globally:  Mandeville, Memory and Mappaemundi.”  That article argues that literary texts which aimed to map global spaces enabled readers to index their memories onto, identify with and own the world. By verbally charting the earth, Mandeville’s Travels served as a mental template wherein users could more easily store information. This challenges the assumptions behind foundational medieval memory work, which reads exclusively elite texts that prohibit prefabricated mnemonic devices. This argument has ramifications for European identity and selfhood in the Global Middle Ages, transhumanist and ecocritical medieval work, and the manner in which colonialist figures were primed by Mandeville to own, appropriate, and utilize other peoples.

We project that the Mandeville article should form one chapter of the book.  Our broader project expands on the themes of that chapter, looking at texts beyond Mandeville.  We move from Augustine and Orosius to Bede’s histories, later medieval chronicle writers, and the first two books of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon.  In doing so, we explore textual mappaemundi, the metaphor of reading-as-travel, and the underpinnings of location-based (and hence mnemonic) knowledge in chronicles. We then read the Harley Lyrics’ “Erþe toc of erþe,” the medieval morality play “The Castle of Perseverace,” John Gower, and the Ebstorf mappamundi to alter our understanding of medieval man’s self-positioning as microcosm, determining what it means to mnemonically consume (with metaphors of memory-as-eating), self-conceptualize as, and think through the world.

We submitted a proposal for this monograph in August 2018 to Brill for inclusion in their Maps, Spaces, Cultures series. The series’ editors were enthusiastic about teh project, and requested further chapters within the next year. 

“Estrildis’s Lament:  Trading Spaces for Sorrow Between The Wife’s  Lament and Geoffrey of Monmouth.”

Synopsis:  Taking the enigmatic Old English poem “The Wife’s Lament” and considering it through the lens of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Britaniae, this essay seeks to ground “The Wife’s Lament” in an understandable and possible landscape. This essay is currently under submission at the Comitatus.     

Examining basic narrative similarities between the poem and a vignette in Geoffrey’s work, I try to use the known geographic space and and situations of the Historia Regnum Britaniae to help uncover possible internal spaces of the eponymous Wife.  Approaching the texts in this way widens the emotional register available to the Wife, and provides a means of understanding the poems ending that relies on accepting, rather than reconciling, the poet’s apparent contradictions.  

Matthew Paris’s Politically Ambitious Mapmaking

Synopsis:  A project examining the mapmaking practices of the 13th century English monk, Matthew Paris, with a particular focus on the his most famous depiction of England, the Claudius map.     

This work springs from my master’s thesis, which offered a close reading of the Claudius map, and argued that through it Paris posed a series of cartographic claims to the whole of Britain that mirrored and reinforced the political ambitions of Henry III.  I have presented a small part of the project’s argument at the 2017 BRIDGE Conference, and that paper is scheduled to be published in an edited collection.  I am currently preparing the chapter on the map’s treatment of Wales for submission as an article, and the project in its entirety is well positioned for expansion into a shorter monograph. 

Producing Islands and Managing Space in The Dog of Montargis

Synopsis:  A study of the changing role of islands as containers for violence and authority in the evolving history of  story that came to be known as The Dog of Montargis.     

The story, which tells of a hound who successfully challenges its master’s killer to a juridical duel, owns a long history during which its elements and actors have changed substantially.  From its origins as a tale of a mob-managed judicial contest between the dog and a commoner in a field outside of Antioch, subsequent medieval iterations gradually shifted the narrative to an expression of royally-controlled violence on Paris’ Île de la Cité in which the antagonist came from noble stock.  In this, the space of the island changed from metaphorical to real, and the popular community, so important to the rituals and processes of saga duels, took up the receptive role of witnesses to the actions of the elites.  In fine, medieval writers used the story of the dog and his duel to reassess the spatial requirements of lawful violence.  The evolving continental model came to argue for a social structure in which popular judicial authority rested with a centralized power, and in which right to combat lay solely with the seigneurial classes.  That social distance found spatial articulation in the far stage space of the island, so that by the time Malory had begun the Mort d’Arthur in the early part of the fifteenth century European authors had come to regard physical islands as the proper containers for legitimated, elite violence.

Theatrical Spaces in the Regularis Concordia

Synopsis:  A close examination of the dramatic spaces present in the 10th-century Regluaris Concordia, pointing to a more nuanced reading of the both the text and its role in the foundation of European theatrical history.       

The Regularis Concordia, a monastic rule which sought to reform Benedectine practice in England, includes what has broadly been considered one of the first instances of liturgical drama in the medieval period.  The text’s Quem Quaeritis section instructs the monks on how to reenact the scene from the Bible of the three women approaching Christ’s tomb and meeting the angel, and has been singled out as the starting point of medieval theatrical ritual.  However, I argue that the Quem Quaeritis part of the text is only the most obvious of a large number of set piece dramas in the Regularis Concordia.  The book carves out multiple stages-spaces with defined and scripted patterns of behavior and dialogue that reinforce monastic ritual.  Paying attention to these dramatic spaces suggests that the traditional understanding of the origins of drama in the medieval period need to be reassessed.