I spent the weekend before my big trip in New Orleans, attending the AHA (American Historical Association) meeting. It's an annual conference for professional historians, and this year in particular, it was full of panels relevant to my research interests. I was initially kicking myself for having scheduled a trip so close to Departure Day, but now I'm thrilled that I decided to come. I'm a person who thrives on the conference energy, and I'm already feeling eager to start research next week--in part fueled by some particularly engaging panels and presentations on saints, hagiography, and Christian attitudes towards nature. On Thursday, I attended a session that was largely focused on Protestant and evangelical views on nature, and included a terrific paper by Mark Stoll of Texas Tech, whose long term project connects pivotal American environmental movement figures with their denominational identities. I've been lucky enough to see Mark present several parts of this work before, and his blend of intellectual and cultural history alongside an almost prosopographical approach to the figures' background reminds me conceptually of the ways that some medieval scholars treat the intellectual history of the medieval world (albeit with more evidence than we have.....).
From there, I went to a session on medieval and early modern hagiography (writings about saints) and had the chance to hear a paper by Rachel Koopmans about Thomas Becket's miracles, in which she asked the interesting question of whether we can identify the miracle that started Becket's cult. (I found myself thinking a lot about St. Foy during this talk--in part because she does seem to have a "kick start" miracle--when Guibert's eyes were restored.) I had the opportunity to spend a bit more time with Rachel during the conference, and the work she's doing on orality, miracle, and the "subterranean" ways in which rumors, miracle stories, and now lost conversation between medieval people shaped the sources and cult we see is inspiring.
Finally, yesterday I had the remarkable opportunity to attend a session on Peter Brown's new book, Through the Eye of a Needle, a work on the role that wealth (and the redefinition of wealth) had in changing the world of Late Antiquity. Four scholars gave talks about things from their own fields that the book prompted them to re-examine or re-explore, and then he responded to these papers. When he began his comments, he noted that there were a few reasons that he pursued this book project, one of which was that he decided that he "wanted to write a book about change over a long period of time." He also wanted to change some of our sense of who it was that drove some of those changes, and he appears to have focused much of the book (I haven't read it yet) exploring the "mediocres" or middling class men and women of late antiquity who lived through the transformation of the Roman Empire into the medieval West. He (and the other scholars) pointed, for example, to the hundreds of North African bishops of small, even rural, areas who slowly changed the church and society as just as worthy of study as Augustine--and they suggested that it is these everyday people making slow and constant changes that add up to cultural shifts. In Brown's words, in such momentous changes, "The heroes are not always the stars."
This was refreshing, and left me both once more under the sway of his eloquence and rhetoric, but also eager to read his book, to challenge my own sense of the meaning of power and money in early Christianity, and (importantly!) to start on the very first phase of my research project--examining two poets who Brown and his colleagues mentioned directly as important bookends for this period of transition: Ausonius and Venantius Fortunatus. I'm not sure where my next few weeks of reading Late Antique poetry will lead me, but I'm even more excited to get started than I was at the start of the week.