Name: Melissa Vise
Field of Study: Medieval Mediterranean History
Graduate Institution: Northwestern University (Ph.D.), University of Notre Dame (M.T.S.)
Year you came to W&L: 2018
What are you working on now? My current book project, The Unruly Tongue, investigates what words could do in medieval Italy. I focus on the northern Italian cities, the nascent self-governing republics that arose in the midst of monarchic and seigniorial rule. The cities branded themselves as beacons of libertas, but dissimilar to the ideals of many modern republics, speech was far from free. I construct a cultural history of speech and its regulation by drawing together medical tracts, pastoral treatises, rhetorical manuals, contemporary literature, statute law, and civic, episcopal, and inquisition trial processes. This diverse source base has suggested that a narrative fore-fronting clerical or political persecution cannot fully explain medieval regulation of speech. Instead, I argue that the definition and prosecution of speech crimes were part of a larger and developing ethics of speech, one that identified the ability of words themselves to become weapons and that summoned all to guard against their violence. I work to identify the construction, geography, and cultural import of a new moral order: the ephemeral and irretrievable--yet profoundly determinative--world of speech.
What is your favorite course you’ve taught at W&L? Why? (you could do your favorite interaction with a student? Or just your favorite class in general, since you don't have a huge selection of W&L courses as yet) Well, I’ve only just started offering courses here at W&L, so it would be quite difficult to pick one. Nevertheless, I do love my First Year Seminar “Plague: A Medieval Pandemic” for a number of reasons. It’s such a wonderful chance to work with a small group of students who, miraculously, have managed to retain their enthusiasm despite the often times gruesome nature of our study. Moreover, it has allowed me to teach in a fully interdisciplinary way: we’ve read modern scientific articles and studied phylogenetic trees; brought in guest scientists; will videoconference with anthropologists and art historians; examine liturgies about death; and will get to read some classics of medieval literature. This is how to do medieval history!
And yet, I would be remiss if I did not mention the awesomeness of my Euro Civ students in their work competing to be “Monk of the Week.” .
What is one thing about your field of study people probably don't know, but should? Not unlike our own time, for every dark moment in the Middle Ages there was also light. That is, the so-called “Dark Ages” were full of renaissances! The Italian Renaissance usually gets all the attention, but personally, the renaissance of the 12th century is my favorite pre-Renaissance renaissance. (Prof. Bent: I am not throwing down my glove.)