This will be a crucial year

Chatting with one of my profs the other day, I realized that to finish my dissertation this year and do all the other things I want to do (i.e. teach, organize events, work on crrs website, committee work, go to the gym, socialize, learn Hebrew, etc), I’ll need to start getting up at 4 in the morning. I can see myself waking up that early and working only on my dissertation before the day begins. I’ll start with 5 am this coming week and see how it goes.


Someone found this blog today after searching for “the light at the end of the thesis.” There must have been a mistake. From where I stand that light is just a rumour. I know it exists – it must! – but have yet to see it myself. And if the thesis were a tunnel, I’d still be lingering on the entrance, taking a deep breath before going in.

Tomorrow I have to report on my progress to my thesis committee.

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…