Meet Amy

Meet Amy, someone who I have SO enjoyed getting to know over the last year. She is our secret weapon in pub quiz night and always makes book club discussions fun with her passionate opinions. During this interview I learned more about what Amy is really passionate about; history, women, and community. It was so inspiring to hear her talk about her work on women in history and I hope you will be able to take some inspiration from her too!



Amy Nelson

With time and distance you often look back on your life and think, “Oh my gosh, it all makes perfect sense.” Even some decisions I made almost ten years ago have informed what my dissertation topic is now. There is no way to draw a direct line with personal experience, because, you know, it’s not what you study in exams and so on, but it still is significant.

I lived in a social-justice based intentional community for two years after college. During that time I formed really close relationships with people, learned what it was like to function with a communal identity and to be a part of a community. It was a very formative time for me and helped me solidify what I wanted to be as an adult and what I cared about. I think my passion for and appreciation for how difficult it is to form a community, maintain it and keep those relationships vibrant informed what I want to do with my study of monastic history and what I want to do with my dissertation topic.

For my Ph.D dissertation, I am looking at 14th and 15th century women’s religious communities in Central Europe. I am really interested in exploring how community is articulated, formed, and maintained over time. I want to find out how women- especially, but also men- express their communal identity in the documents that we have. I really wanted to work on women. I knew that there is a lot of work that needs to be done still on women in history- women as leaders and actors in society, but the community piece was something from my personal life. I think that was what attracted me to monastic history- these people living together and being a part of something. That intrigued me. Of course being in graduate school I also did many research papers and exams and read to prepare for my dissertation, but I think there’s always- in every approach to a topic and finding your angle, finding your voice- that guidance that comes from your personal life.

Women’s roles in history are a lot more complex than I think a lot of academics suggest. I think it’s less about affiliation with a particular political group or family group or religious order and more about negotiating these relationships . It’s about all of those things combined, religious convictions, political identity, family identity, language spoken, etc. All of these things- just like in the present day- you have to negotiate these things. Official roles and duties versus relationships with your family. You need to balance your family ties and then exercise your role as a leader. So, just as we have these negotiations of different relationships today, it was the same in the 14th or 15th century.

We can find kind of these layers of how these communities came to be formed and maintained. I think that’s a much more interesting question than asking, you know, why were these women affiliated with this one religious order or who were the men that were directing these women who had no voice and were enclosed in a monastery. That’s completely the wrong approach, I think, to studying women’s religious communities because these women were active, they were leaders, they had a voice, they had family relationships. They were inheriting lands and they were key donors and founders and doing all of these things that men were doing, but we don’t often have a clear record of these practices so it can be difficult to study.

You have to sort of peel away the layers and do this educated guessing- I won’t say that’s what history is- but there’s a lot of forming conclusions and putting together a picture. I think part of my process as a historian is to kind of look at history like a puzzle in that you have these pieces and you are trying to put something together to try to find a bigger picture. Sometimes the way I work is more forest for the trees. I’m not really good at the little nitty bitty details. I like to get a whole picture, a sense of what I am trying to put together.

I think my gender definitely influences my research interests. We have centuries of historians who have been mostly male and who have been neglecting the study of women. In the case of monastic women, only for about the past three or four decades has this begun to be remedied. Historical work in Central Europe that takes gender into account- it’s only recently being done. Gender theory isn’t particularly popular here, and there is a lot of work on women that still needs to happen. So I commit a lot of my research to locating women in history and giving them a voice- it’s frustrating to not have the scholarship that I often depend on to research also bear that goal out. So digging through these materials, I’m looking with an eye toward gender, with an eye towards finding women.

These are not new sources, this is not new history, it’s simply telling the story in a different way that’s highlighting what women were doing rather than their separation from decision making and society. I know that, as a woman, as a feminist, my interest in working on women’s history is directly informed by that. By feminist theory, by my own convictions and my own sense of self sufficiency and individuality- knowing that the modern women did not invent this. Women have been moving and shaking for centuries and centuries and centuries and it’s not just a famous queen or a famous religious mystic or a famous promiscuous woman. Those women were sort of put on a pedestal as exceptions for a while by historians, but there are a lot of common, every day women who are doing really cool things as well.

I think that more historians should try to integrate women better into the narratives that we present. I think that’s an important duty of historians. For me, I’m going to go teach in a college and it’s my role as a professor to make sure that women get integrated into the narrative and introduce my students to women in history through what they were writing and doing.

Teaching on women in survey courses like Western Civilization- it’s a big problem still. The way it’s been done is that teachers have a week or one lecture about “women” as a topic. Women are relegated to a little sliver of history, ostracized in a way- you could more generously say historians have tried to put women “back in” to the story by having them lobbed on in appendix form in their later published editions or in revisions to their lecture schedule. The narrative as it has existed for the last 100-150 years is so male centric and where women come in, when they do come in, it’s often through these really, really famous women only. And these famous women SHOULD be talked about- they’re great! But I think that there’s room for talking about women and thinking about gender that’s not in just one token week . Unfortunately, this is a bigger problem than how to talk about women–marginalized groups tend to get taken out of the narrative all together or siloed in to one lecture. We need to do better.

The people with the loudest voices and the best positions of power have been the people who have written history. So primarily white, western, male scholars. That has and is changing increasingly. Think about the lack of sources we have for finding women’s voices. Do you assume from that silence that women were not in important social roles? Were not active? Were not exerting their voices? Or was it just that the men who were for the most part the recorders and record-keepers didn’t deem it important to write it down or for whatever reason didn’t preserve documents by or about women ? I don’t think we should assume that these women we do see in written documents were exceptional because they were active in society. We’re fortunate to have fabulous written works by or about medieval women that are certainly worth studying. But I think that the women we don’t know a lot about were just not using the channels that history has come to recognize and understand as authoritative. They’re not absent. Absolutely not. Also, there are still more source documents out there to study. There’s very, very interesting stuff about women still to be found and talked about. You just have to dig a bit, or ask different questions. It’s an exciting time to be a medieval historian.

Playing with manuscripts is probably my favorite part about being a historian. I wanted to be an archeologist ever since Indiana Jones and Ariel from The Little Mermaid. But when I got to college I took an archeology course and realized that I didn’t really want to dig around in the desert with a toothbrush. I realized history- becoming a historian- was more up my alley. But I still love to investigate material objects and integrate art history into my work. Material culture is a huge part of what I’m interested in.

Part of the reason I’m so excited to be in Vienna this year is I can go and see some of the former sites and current sites of these religious communities that I’m studying. As well as going into the archives and looking at and playing with some of the manuscripts. And by “playing with” I mean being very, very respectful and professional in dealing with these old, old priceless books, of course!

I’m originally from Bismarck, North Dakota and I went to college in Minnesota. After that I moved to Chicago for several years. I worked with at-risk youth while living in the intentional community I mentioned. Then I got into a master’s program at Harvard and I studied the history of Christianity. After that I had a bit of an identity crisis and I didn’t know if I wanted to go on with academics or do something more socially active. I’ve always been really interested in social work.

So I moved back to Chicago and assumed more work similar to what I was doing before graduate school, working with at-risk youth. I was working as a case manager at a job placement non-profit and directed a tutor-mentor program for ESL learners. For a good six to eight years I was bouncing back and forth between working with at risk youth and young adults, and teaching and studying history.

I decided that I was better suited for an academic career; I got really burned out in social work. It was emotionally draining for me. Yes, the work load was very heavy at times and difficult, but for me it was the emotional load. I found I wasn’t great at detaching from what my clients were facing on a day to day basis and it was breaking me down. So I realized it wasn’t a sustainable career for me. I have so much respect for people who are social workers and counselors.

I still get to work with young adults as a college professor and guide them and be a mentor figure to them. That’s something that really excites me, not just the history. I had such wonderful mentors in college. And again, it’s come full circle. Having these wonderful mentors and then wanting to give that back. It’s something I’m really passionate about and I’m really excited to get started teaching courses. Now I’m entering my sixth year of my PhD at the university of Notre Dame at the Medieval Institute. I have a few more years before I finish my dissertation and I’ll be on the job market. So if anyone hears of any medieval history positions opening up anywhere let me know!

I was fortunate enough to get a Fulbright grant to study for nine months in Vienna and work on my dissertation research. For the last year I have been at the Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung at the University of Vienna. It’s been a wonderful experience. The colleagues there are phenomenal supportive people and I’ve been working with a professor there whose academic interests and ideals are really in line with mine.

She’s really guided me in the ways in which I can put down my thoughts and craft this dissertation and make it my own voice. I’m really thrilled to have her help me think about my own work. One of the most valuable things about my time here was to have that guidance in how to make this project my own, how to give it my own voice, how to really focus on the things that are really important to me. Plus I want to make sure it is something that’s pushing the discipline forward.

Vienna, Vienna, Vienna. I feel like I need some distance from Vienna before I can really process my time here. In many ways I love it. It’s a comfortable, beautiful city that sucks you in and makes you think that all cities are like this and it’s just natural that there’s no crime and everything is beautiful and all your food is wonderful and everyone is polite and nice. Then you remember that is actually not the case, like in the US where I’m going back to in a few months.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever shaken the feeling of being an outsider, of being not from Vienna. It’s not a place that you are easily- you don’t easily become a part of the community. There, back to communities again! Yes I feel like I am a part of it in some ways, but I have been here now about a year, but I haven’t felt fully integrated . I’m still a visitor. That’s hard. Because of my nature, I like to dive right in and become really involved and be a part of my part of my neighborhood and form relationships with my neighbors and be active in politics. In many ways it’s been a struggle.

I think it’s been easier because I’ve had my dog here and that has opened my eyes to aspects of Vienna I wouldn’t have noticed. It’s a super dog friendly city and people are really, really friendly when you have a cute dog. That brings me l joy as well.