Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Medieval professor to research sieges in the 12th century

Dr. Steven Isaac, associate professor of history at Longwood University, will conduct research as a Fulbright Scholar at a university in France during the spring semester.

Isaac, a medieval historian, will work with fellow scholars at the Center for Advanced Studies of Medieval Civilization at the University of Poitiers on the topic "Urban Experience of Siege in the Twelfth Century." Isaac's main research field is medieval military culture, focusing primarily on Western Europe in the 12th century. In an effort to flesh out the narratives of how people in towns lived during military sieges, Isaac wants to examine documents such as cartularies (collections of deeds and charters) that are not readily available in the United States.

"I am going there to do research, to devour the materials," said Isaac, who will be in Poitiers from January through May. "At the same time, though, I won't be in a library all day, with my nose in a book, and not talking to anybody. I will interact with faculty and graduate students. This should be mutually beneficial since maybe people there can put me in touch with sources I don't know about, and vice versa. My plan is that this experience will lead to a book; one that will straddle that difficult ground between popular history and academic history. I want it to be something that both specialists and our undergraduates would enjoy reading. I have talked with some academic presses, and they are receptive.

"In my Fulbright, I will work with the director of the Center, Martin Aurell, and with all of the various research teams there, which are led by faculty members and involve graduate students. Research-wise, I want to hang out in the intersections between the teams. I have already learned a great deal from Professor Aurell, who also is a member of the Institut du France, which is quite an honor, and is director of the Cahiers de Civilisation Medievale."

His research, he said in his application for a Fulbright, will "bring into sharper relief elements of urban society that either failed or succeeded. Thus, the focus is not one of military history solely, but of all the intersecting dynamics of medieval culture that played a role in townspeople's decisions to resist an attacker or to open their gates. The fault lines of twelfth-century towns...lay hidden to immediate view, but the pressure of siege, of imminent loss, often showed just where they ran."

Isaac's interest in towns under siege in the 12th century grew out of earlier research. His M.A., from Louisiana State University, examined mercenaries during the reign (1135-1154) of King Stephen of England, and his Ph.D., also from LSU, was expanded "to include what we call the 'long 12th century,' which ran up to around 1220, and moved from strictly England to across Western Europe. In studying mercenaries, I got to thinking not only about why they chose this career but also about the towns many of them came from. What was going on in these towns?"

The narratives in this field that he has already come across, he wrote in his application for a Fulbright scholarship, "must be supplemented by trolling widely in...the cartularies of ecclesiastical institutions and the collected charters of kings and magnates. Often enough to merit the researcher's investment, these documents include the back-story to a grant or liberty, thus explaining how a dispute arose, how severe it became, and under what conditions the involved parties accepted a resolution."

He gave a paper related to this topic in 2001, and his contribution to a book due out in November 2009, Galbert of Bruges and the Historiography of Medieval Flanders, edited by Jeff Rider and Alan V. Murray, will touch on the subject. He is active in the Haskins Society, an international scholarly organization dedicated to the study of Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and early Angevin history. Isaac especially credits his colleagues in this society with sharpening his thinking on this subject.

"There isn't much from this period that hasn't been ferreted out; you often wish there was," he said. "We reach a lot of dead ends and blind alleys. Fortunately, though, you can revisit sources and see something you might have missed. The evidentiary record isn't closed off. You learn to read between the lines."

The Center for Advanced Studies of Medieval Civilization (Centre d'Etudes Superieures de Civilisation Medievale) is housed in the Hotel Berthelot, a former residence that dates to the 16th century. "I've been lucky to visit there; for a researcher, the atmosphere just makes you want to dive in all that much deeper into the past," Isaac said.

The University of Poitiers, which has an enrollment of 23,500, of whom 16 percent are international students, was founded in 1431 and is France's second oldest university. Former students include the writers Guez de Balzac and Francois Rabelais and the philosophers Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. It is in Poitiers, a city in west-central France.

Asked about his command of French, Isaac said "I would describe my French as not fluent but capable. I suspect my French will get a workout when I'm there. Since cartularies are in Latin, my days will be spent in Latin and French. The only time I'll likely hear English is when I mutter to myself."

Isaac has taught since 2004 at Longwood, where, along with Dr. Larissa (Kat) Tracy, a fellow medievalist who is assistant professor of English, he organized the Longwood University Medieval Conference, which has been held in the spring the past three years. Also, for two years he has led the history portion of the month-long Immersion in France program in La Rochelle, France, in July, which also involves the study of French. In addition, he led the Berber Culture program in May 2009 which included 11 days in Morocco and three days in Spain. He expects that study-abroad program to be repeated in 2011.

"My department (History, Philosophy, and Political Science) has been enthusiastically supportive of everything I've wanted to do," he said.

A Texas native, Isaac was born in Odessa, lived in the Dallas suburbs when he was young, and moved in the ninth grade to Nederland, near Beaumont. After graduating in 1991 from Hardin-Simmons University, where he double-majored in history and journalism, he held a public relations job at Texas State Technical College for two years, then entered graduate school. After receiving his doctorate, he taught at LSU for a year, then taught at Northwestern College, in Orange City, Iowa, for five years before coming to Longwood.

"A friend once asked me why I'm interested in the medieval period," he said. "I told him 'Because I read Lord of the Rings and Ivanhoe in the seventh grade.'"

Interestingly, a Longwood colleague, Dr. Raymond Cormier, visiting professor of French and himself a two-time Fulbright Scholar, also is a medieval specialist whose primary research is the 12th century. "If I go to the library looking for a certain book and it's not there, Raymond probably has it," Isaac said with a laugh. "Then we arrange a library drop-off."

The Fulbright Program, administered by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is the U.S. government's flagship international exchange program. Isaac is one of 13 Fulbright Scholars who will do research in France during the 2009-10 academic year. "I made my Fulbright application in summer 2008, then learned in May this year, through a polite phone call, that I'd been accepted," he said. "Official word came a month later."

Isaac is the third Longwood faculty member to receive a Fulbright scholarship in recent years. Dr. David Hardin, assistant professor of geography, did research as a Fulbright Scholar in spring 2005 on Serb settlements in the Western Slavonia region that became embroiled from 1991-95 in what Croats call the Homeland War. Dr. Martha Cook, who retired as professor of English in May 2009, taught Southern literature as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Waikato in New Zealand in 1987