To the untrained eye, my manuscripts might seem impossible to read but in reality, I’ve been pretty lucky. Most of the documents I use for my dissertation are very neat, written in polished and uniform cursive writing typical of southern European chanceries. They tend to be a rounder script than say what scribes used in England, where strokes were much more angular. Most of them are very clear, like the examples below:


While the above is a picture of an original manuscript, most of my documents are photocopies made from microfilm but are no less readable:


Which is just as well since I have to go through thousands of these! But then, just to make things sinteresting, every once in a while some messier examples comes to the fore and I wasted a long time trying to figure out what’s going on:




or faint ones


But judging by some of the stuff my friends have to read, I can still count myself lucky even if at times I want to shoot myself. Medieval history is not for the faint of heart! And to think that I chose it because I got bored with the typed documents used in modern history… there must be something wrong with me.

The birth of a research assistant

I had been planning to go to Girona to collect some documentation for a long time now but couldn’t figure out the best time to go. As usual, the decision was made for me when I found out that a famous Spanish historian would be giving a public lecture in Girona on Thursday night. Perfect, I thought. We’ll go to Girona, I can do research during the day while Alan wanders around, catch the lecture at night and we could spend the night. With that in mind we set out on Thursday morning.

I found a very nice two-star Pensión near the cathedral. Pensión Bellmirall is in a 14th-century house on a nice side street. We were very pleased with our room:

Room 2 at Bellmirall

After checking in, we set out to the Archivo Diocesano de Girona, where I had to collect some documents. Alan didn’t really feel like wandering the sights on his own so he volunteered to take pictures of the documents I needed. Since this was the first time he handled 14th-century documents, he was in constant awe. I’m always telling him about the neat books and documents I see people working with at the archives here in Barcelona and he was pleased to have the opportunity to handle some of these himself.

Register of Letters from the bishop Opening the books

This one still had its original cover:

Pink cover for an account book

Every once in a while we would find little drafts and notes stuck inside the books:


I was very pleased at the two archives I needed to visit. The people at both the Archivo Diocesano and the municipal archives were very friendly and nice. There was no red tape to speak of – no one demanded an introduction, reference letters and the like – and I was allowed to bring anything in the room. Very low profile. Both archives are also up to date with their use of technology and are working hard to digitize their documents.

After the work at the archives was done, we went out for lunch and took the afternoon off to explore the city a bit. The old town of Girona is beautiful and considered one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The city is also considered the best place to live in Spain. We had been there before and you can see some pictures here and here.

I really enjoyed our time there, maybe I’ll make the Jewish community of Girona my second project… That way we could spend a year there ;)

Despite feeling guilty for abandoning my main research here in Barcelona for a few days, the trip was successful and we can home with a few hundred pictures of documents that I can use for my thesis… And Alan has been named my official research assistant ;) Go here for Alan’s take on his new job. Now, if only I could teach him paleaography….

Researching at the archives

As some of you know, the whole purpose of spending the year in Barcelona is to undertake research for my PhD thesis. Friends back in Toronto, however, reading this blog, ask me whether I do anything else here than going out to eat, travelling, blogging and taking photos. So I decided to take a little time and write a bit more about the work I’m doing here.

First, let me tell you a little bit about the object of my research and my sources. I study Christian-Jewish interaction in the late 14th-century Catalonia and Aragon. While in general, medieval scholars tend to work with a scarce documentary basis, I’m lucky that the Crown of Aragon (the area comprised of the Valencia, Catalonia, Aragon & the balearics) holds one of the richest archival collections for the Middle Ages. The public institutions of the Crown of Aragon were very prolific in their writing and hundreds of thousands of documents survive, regulating all aspects of medieval life. So my problem is not that I don’t have enough documents, but that I have too many! So I had to choose a narrow period of time and one main body of sources. I chose to look at the royal chancery registers from the years 1380-1391. These registers contain letters issued by the king in response to requests sent to him. Since the Jews were under the direct jurisdiction of the king, most problems they had appear in the royal courts and thus in these registers.

In the past 8 months, I’ve combed through dozens of registers (each about 500 pages long) and so far have collected over 2,000 documents. I’ve also kept an eye for other documents and have collected a few court cases, job contracts, and have a list of stuff to get at the Municipal archive and the church archives at Girona.

And what’s your conclusion, people ask me. I have no conclusions yet. Nor could I have. The work is pretty mechanical at this point. All I do is collect the documents – I enter some basic info in a database, make a photocopy or a digital copy of the page(s) and move on. The analysis will come later, when I get back to Toronto. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make some sense of all these puzzle pieces. I still don’t know how I’ll do it but I was able to squeeze stuff out of much drier sources in the past (like when I wrote my honours’ thesis) so that keeps me hopeful. I also know that the thesis is more of an exercise than my ultimate piece of work. That also helps. I had that perspective when I wrote my honours thesis and it really helped. If only I can keep it up through the writing process, things will work out….

Here’s a picture of a piece of one of my documents….

MS scrap

And here’s where the archives used to be located, now a place for public visitation. I should be doing research there!!! But who said the world is fair?…

Palau del Lloctinent

And here’s the new building, where I go everyday. Not quite as glamorous but the wonderful personel more than make up for the coolness of the building:


And here is for the Archives of the Crown of Aragon on the news today: El Periodico

From 200 books to 200 registers

On Friday, March 3rd I passed my comprehensive exams. Aimed at providing a solid background for future research and teaching, the ‘comps’, as they are fondly called, involve reading about 200 books over a period of 9 months. I averaged one and a half books a day towards the last few weeks of reading. While I had a healthy attitude towards the exams in the beginning, towards the end I totally freaked out and reached rock bottom somewhere at the end of January. I couldn’t eat or sleep properly, I cried for no reason, I was convinced my academic carreer was over before it even started. They would finally discover what a big fraud I am… “If I can pass this” I thought “research and writing my thesis will be no problem”.

Maybe I spoke too soon. Or maybe things haven’t changed that much. Or maybe we need to convince ourselves, in a graduate program, that the next stage will be easier in order to move on.

I’m now doing my research. Instead of two hundred typed books I need to read two hundred manuscript books (chancery registers). Instead of modern English, French or Spanish I now have to read highly abbreviated Latin and medieval Catalan and Aragonese.

Suddenly, I miss the comps…