Dr. Esther Liberman Cuenca, who earned her Ph.D. in medieval history at Fordham in 2019, has been awarded the 2021 Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize from the Medieval Academy of America, which recognizes a first article in the field of medieval studies of outstanding quality. The prize, for her article, “Town clerks and the authorship of custumals in medieval England,” Urban History 46:2 (2019): 180-201, was established by the Medieval Academy of America in 1971 and consists of a certificate and a monetary award of $500. It will be presented at the Academy’s 2021 Annual Meeting, hosted online by Indiana University, Bloomington. She is one of two winners of the award this year. The prize committee submitted the following citation.
In her perceptive and finely-crafted essay Esther Liberman Cuenca examines the expertise and duties of clerks in medieval English towns, and particularly their roles in creating custumals, or collections of written customs. She highlights and traces two fundamental aspects of clerks’ authorship, their legal and administrative expertise, and their roles in transmitting urban laws to posterity. Urban historians of the Middle Ages are familiar with custumals, documents found in almost every medieval towns that regulated the lives of their citizens, from markets and commerce to administration, social mores and hygiene. While historians usually locate and frame analyses of the documents within the history of urban politics and “normalization”, they rarely study who actually drafted them. Cuenca’s innovative article engages the historiography of urban literacy, and of the anonymous professionals who supported literacy within an urban institutional framework. Her careful analysis of their oaths and administrative practices, which often adapted older materials, reveals that town clerks played critical roles in transmitting customary law to future generations of administrators. Clerks were usually left in the shadow of their superior, and the vital contribution of Cuenca’s work is to bring these individuals to light by focusing on the creation, organization, and preservation of urban custumals, and most of all on their authorship. Were these clerks scriptores, compilatores, or commentators? By showing that they fulfilled all of these roles, Cuenca reaffirms their existence in urban memory.
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On September 17, 2020, a recent History Ph.D. from Fordham, Esther Liberman Cuenca (who got a tenure-track job at the University of Houston, Victoria last year) just published a very lively piece, “A Medieval Mother Tries Distance Learning,” in The Paris Review about advice that Dhuoda, a 9th-century noblewoman, wrote for her son who was a political hostage and thus separated from her.
Her Twitter handle is @EstherLCuenca.
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As students all over the world and from pre-K to graduate school experience disruption to their educational lives, Fordham doctoral candidate Rachel Podd took some time to discuss the differing ways societies respond to pandemics with some students of the Bronx School of Science. One of the great teachers there, Mr. Matthew Clark, reached out to Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies looking for a lecturer, and connected with Rachel. She crafted a twenty-minute recorded lecture, including slides, for the students to explore, based on comparing societal responses to two pandemics, the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Students read a selection from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron recounting the author’s experience of plague in Florence, as well as several current news articles on COVID in New York, focusing specifically on areas of commonality, including a rise in xenophobia and a breakdown in the rituals of death and dying. Students were also asked to consider how the experience of a pandemic is at least partially determined by social class and economic status.
On Wednesday the 6th, Rachel and about forty BSS students gathered on Google Meeting for a question and answer session lasting about an hour and a half. Discussion was wide-ranging and lively, as the students probed how ideas about disease causation – the miasma theory of the Middle Ages versus today’s germ theory – determined the ways governments sought to prevent or reduce the spread of disease, as well as how the medical establishment, past and present, has responded to moments of intense stress. Finally, Rachel, Matthew and the students discussed how pandemics result in fundamentally changed societies. Though immeasurably painful and demographically catastrophic, the Black Death allowed for considerable social reform, increased female entry into the workforce, and rising social mobility, fundamentally changing the way medieval Europeans lived. How, exactly, COVID-19 will change our own lives remains, as of yet, unknown.
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