When at age 18, I stepped inside the first medieval cathedral I had ever seen, the soaring Gothic structure that dominates the skyline of the English city of Lincoln, I was enthralled – and profoundly bewildered. I didn’t understand the thoughts, emotions, and worldviews of the men and women who had offered this magnificent building to their god. Exploring the motivations of medieval people and, more particularly, how they constructed meaning, has been the intellectual project that has engaged me as a historian ever since. In my earlier work, I focused on medieval France; in more recent years, I retrained myself in the emerging field of medieval Iberia as well as in the field of colonial Mexican history and have brought my work into dialogue with the new field of trans-cultural history. My current interests include Muslim-Christian relations in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean, and the global history of captivity.
My first published work as a scholar won the Medieval Academy of America’s Van Courtland Elliott Prize, a prize awarded for the best first article in the field of medieval studies. In this essay (“Un problème de cultures ou de culture? La statue-reliquaire et les joca de Sainte Foy de Conques dans le Liber miraculorum de Bernard d’Angers”), I showed how the eleventh-century cult of a female child saint who played jokes on people undermined the divisions between popular and elite culture that medievalists had taken for granted. I explored issues that would remain important to me as a scholar: how people produce meaning by creating images of themselves and of their world, and how these images then shape social and political realities.
I wrote this article in French, for at the time I was living in Paris working on my doctoral dissertation, which was published as a book by Cornell University Press in 1995 (Remembering Kings Past: Monastic Foundation Legends in Medieval Southern France). This book belonged to the vanguard of what soon thereafter became a host of studies of medieval memory, collective and communal. In Remembering Kings Past, I proposed a new category of memory: “imaginative memory,” a term I devised to capture memory’s tendency to radically and creatively transform the past. Issues of how imaginative memory is shaped by present needs and can itself come to influence the present were at the core of this project. Specifically, Remembering Kings Past focused on the foundation legends which approximately forty southern French monasteries embroidered for themselves between the late tenth and the mid-thirteenth centuries. I argued that the political vision articulated by those legends suggested a re-evaluation of modern scholarly understandings of medieval French monarchy.
In Remembering Kings Past, I used the interdisciplinary approach that continues to characterize my work. Through extensive archival and on-site research in France, I had discovered that these monastic legends did not belong to a fixed formal genre. Commemorations of a monastery’s beginnings as a community could take the shape of discrete narrative texts, but also saints’ lives, miracle collections, forged and narrative charters, vernacular epics, sculpture, architecture, and reliquaries. To engage effectively with this diverse range of sources, I drew on the methodologies of art history and literary criticism as well as of history. In Remembering Kings Past, I also used the work of anthropologists and historians who study religion as a cultural system and the creation by groups and individuals of bounded identities, for the book examined how foundation legends explained the monasteries to themselves and to contemporaries while situating these communities in relation to other groups and institutions.
Placing the legends into the very local web of social relations in which they were elaborated, Remembering Kings Past showed how and why they emerged when they did. More important, the book examined the legends in light of another level of identity formation: that of relations between political centers and their peripheries. In their legends, these abbeys created a vibrant image of French kings of the past, such as Charlemagne. The abbeys’ predilection for claiming monarchs as their founders was surprising; from the mid-tenth to the mid-thirteenth century, French kings rarely ventured into southwestern France, a region distant from their sphere of power north of the Loire. It was really only in the mid-thirteenth century that this slice of southern France was effectively integrated into the royal realm. These monasteries, then, were located in an area that modern historians of medieval France have often seen as part of the political periphery – but these communities’ remarkable legendary affection for kings led me to challenge that definition. Remembering Kings Past in fact challenged the prevailing centrist tendency in most studies of medieval kingship, that is, the focus on how the political center elaborates and manipulates images of itself that it then communicates to the political periphery it wishes to dominate. I argued that the representations fashioned by the so-called periphery can be as creative of the political, symbolic center as is that center of itself. Hence, Remembering Kings Past vigorously questioned the validity of the centrist approach to the problem of the creation of loyalty to the larger political community.
My interest in medieval France continued and I would publish two more articles in this area. At the same time I had begun work on my second book, a project that would take me in radically new directions, leading me across the Pyrenees into the multi-faith world of medieval Iberia and then eventually across the Atlantic into the equally diverse worlds of colonial Mexico and New Mexico. Along the way, I engaged in dialogue with interlocutors with whom medievalists are not usually in conversation and demonstrated how much medievalists have to offer to the study of early modern European empires in the New World and to the field of transcultural history. I even became what I think of as an imperialistic medievalist, proposing a new definition of the medieval that shows this time period stretching into eras and geographic regions well beyond the confines within which scholars have traditionally placed it.
My second book, La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds (Oxford University Press, 2014), takes an innovative approach to the history of the Virgin Mary, connecting medieval and early modern understandings of this iconic figure to reveal a legacy that continues to fuel ethnic and religious politics today. While my first book was a local study, this one travels through time and space, from medieval Iberia to colonial Mexico and finally to the high desert of present day New Mexico, home to a still controversial statue of Mary called La Conquistadora. This book offers a new take on Atlantic history by integrating the Middle Ages into a field that has been seen as demarcated by the early modern era. Furthermore, while most studies of Mary emphasize her maternal love, La Conquistadora uncovers her much neglected – and very significant – role as an active and often belligerent patron of Christian warfare. In contrast to most scholarship about Mary which locates her within a firmly Christian context, I instead explore her prominence on and off the battlefield in the multi-faith Mediterranean world of medieval Iberia, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side, and in the equally diverse Atlantic world of colonial Mexico, where Europeans and indigenous peoples mingled. La Conquistadora shows how Mary was drawn into hostile and peaceful cross-cultural encounters, as this array of peoples turned to her to articulate their identities. The book ends by showing how crucial Mary remains to the politics of identity in places like New Mexico today.
Much of this book explores how lines of demarcation between Christians and non-Christians were drawn through Mary. These could be the metaphoric lines of fixed identities created by doctrinal differences and religious polemic, or the physical ones of war. In either case, Christians and non-Christians ended up on opposite sides of Mary and of each other. La Conquistadora shows, for example, how beginning around 1000, Mary was drawn into warfare between Muslims and Christians in Iberia, and became an icon of the so-called Christian reconquest, which ended in 1492. In the process, rulers of Castile and Aragon developed a Marian sense of monarchy, and Mary helped define the manliness of Christian men of war and sharpen their sense that they were fighting against the infidel. Here I underline Mary’s importance to lay male devotion, something that has been neglected in favor of examinations of her meaning to women, monastics, and clerics. I also excavate the important role that Mary, whom historians usually treat as quintessential embodiment of femininity, played in definitions of masculinity.
While Mary could symbolize military confrontation and religious borders, La Conquistadora shows that she could also embody borderlands, where seemingly stark distinctions dissolved and the actual malleability of identities became apparent. Christians believed that Mary could even open the way for non-Christians to make the border crossing to Christianity. Accordingly, La Conquistadora considers Christian stories depicting her as a particularly effective agent in the conversion of Jews, Muslims, and native peoples of the Americas. It also explores how, in situations of Christian domination, converts might use her as a figure of power through which to narrate their experiences and express identities blending old and new. La Conquistadora in fact illuminates hitherto unsuspected ways in which distinctions between Christians and Muslims, or Spaniards and Indians were blurred. As medieval and early modern Spanish knights and kings warred with Muslims, they made Mary into a patron of Christian conquest. Yet they also recognized something that would surprise many non-Muslims in the post 9-11 west, who believe that an abyss separates Christianity and Islam: Mary belongs to both faiths. As the book demonstrates, this created situations of enormous complexity for members of both religions. Medieval Muslims and Christians shared Mary, sometimes even joining together in rituals of worship in her churches, but they could fight over her. La Conquistadora also explores how on the other side of the Atlantic, some Christianized indigenous peoples of the Americas appropriated from the Spanish the idea of Mary as Conquistadora, using it to reinforce the identity they fashioned for themselves as native conquistadors.
Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (Routledge, 2011), the volume of collected essays of which I was a co-editor, exemplifies another and very different research agenda I developed while working on La Conquistadora. In this ground-breaking volume, leading medieval historians reflect on how their knowledge of the past can help us confront issues of injustice in the modern world. I co-authored Why the Middle Ages Matter’s substantial introduction and contributed my own article to the volume: a consideration of the cautionary lessons that the history of medieval torture has to teach modern policy makers. This book breaks through the remarkable reluctance that medievalists collectively have shown to engaged scholarship. It thus pioneered a new area within the field of medieval studies.
I am currently at work on three new book projects. Two of them focus on relations between Muslims and Christians in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean.
The first of these projects, tentatively An Island of Interfaith Trust in a Sea at War examines a place much in the news today as a meeting point between Africa and Europe: Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily, where thousands of immigrants fleeing North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa wash up each year (often, their frail boats capsize off shore, causing hundreds of deaths, as happened in October 2013). In 2013, Pope Francis I chose this island as the destination for his first papal visit outside Rome. It is no accident that on Lampedusa, the pope offered prayers for the immigrants at a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for memories of the site’s ecumenical past linger today; in the late medieval and early modern eras, Muslims and Christians prayed together in the cave shrine that preceded the current chapel. In this book, I will focus on the deep history of this island and its shrine, which loomed so large in pre-modern European mentality that Lampedusa may have been Shakespeare’s inspiration for the enchanted isle disputed between Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest. But while Shakespeare and other famed Renaissance authors chose Lampedusa as the physical setting for literary representations of the contest between Islam and Christianity, this island located in a sea of danger and interfaith military hostility was actually experienced by the men, Muslim and Christian, who sailed the Mediterranean as a place of interfaith trust. In my research, I am exploring the geographical, geological, cultural, religious reasons that allowed Muslim and Christian sailors and pirates to make Lampedusa and its shrine into an interfaith refuge.
My second new project, tentatively entitled “Neighbors: Life in a Medieval Borderland,” returns me to Iberia. This is an archivally based project using material documenting the network of social, sexual, cultural, economic, religious, and ritual relations that, in the fifteenth century, bound the Granadan Muslim town of Vera together with the town of Lorca, its Christian neighbor across the frontier in Castile. “Neighbors” Remensnyder anticipates that “Neighbors” will make an innovative contribution to the bibliography about medieval frontiers by: 1) focusing in depth on two communities in order to capture the texture of life in the borderlands and reveal new aspects of it; 2) thinking about borderlands in terms of the history of physical space; 3) examining the role of memory in the conceptual construction of borders. Tracing the life patterns of individuals from Lorca and Vera as they intermarried, traded, and warred with each other, I will explore the formal and informal mechanisms that they developed to negotiate moments of tension. I will show how these neighborly relations were informed by and inscribed on the physical landscape, as certain places became privileged sites for the resolution of charged issues. I will also ask how those relations were affected by the radical changes of the last decade of the fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century, when Vera was incorporated into Castile and its inhabitants forcibly converted to Christianity. Here questions about memory and borderlands posed by the archival material will come to the fore. In this set of testimonies resulting from a conflict between Lorca and Vera over their respective civic boundaries, residents of each town remembered the pre 1492 situation, tailoring their memories in crucial ways.
My third new project, tentatively entitled A Global History of Captivity, will be synthetic history of captivity across the globe, from antiquity to the present. This project has its origins in my work as the director of the Brown History Education Prison Project, in which I organize and teach history courses at a local prison, and in a course I teach at Brown about the global history of prison and captivity.