Helping students find their voice
Carolyn Muessig, Professor of Medieval Religion, first taught PhD student Jessica Cheetham during Jessica's BA in Theology and Religion. Here, Carolyn and Jess discuss the enduring value of developing one's religious literacy, and the importance of a mutually enlightening student-supervisor relationship.
Carolyn: 'Body and Theology' is a unit that looks at the development of the sense of self, from early biblical times to the 15th century. One of the reasons I wanted to teach that unit is because I think the history of religion is greatly misunderstood. In the process of purifying the mind, people would purify the body because the two were symbiotic. So, there was a lot of self-mortification. Jess was a prize student because people struggle with this concept; the first reaction of students is to think that people hated themselves. But Jess understood the process more clearly.
Jess: It’s not about hating the body, it’s about hating the flesh; there is a distrust of sexuality and sexual sin in pre-modern history and the desire was to to free the body of those constraints. In order to be heard, women utilised the body as a visual canvas for the spiritual life. By mortifying it they expressed their desire to imitate the suffering of Christ. It was much more a symbol of their devotion in a society that denied them the opportunity to engage in the upper echelons of the church.
People think that women married, had children and did nothing else. There were certainly pressures on women to do that but we’ve also got to look at ways that women broke free from that. It’s not about imposing a feminist narrative on history but looking at what an oppressed class of people did to have a sense of self in history.
Carolyn: People often ask, ‘what’s the point of studying religious history?'. You see people looking to the past to create rationalities for the present, and if you have this erasure of women’s role in history, then, in a way, it’s encouraging some of the arguments that are used against the role of women in the church today because it suggests there is no precedent for women’s involvement. People think that it’s an esoteric, abstract interest, but it’s not as disengaged from how people shape their perceptions today.
A lot of people want to write dissertations on the issue of the body in religion and history. Jess has taken on what is an extremely important aspect of the discussion, embracing the way we respond to it today, while simultaneously being a spokesperson for women who are long gone. She is the only person who I think can do this, because it’s demanding a lot of the historical mind that can be sensitive to sources that are 900 years old, and be sensitive to the way people perceive it, without judgment.
Jess: Supervision is so important. I came to Carolyn at the beginning of the year with lots of ideas. She’s been excellent at helping me to put them in order without ever trying to constrict my creative energy. That’s the exciting thing about postgraduate work. You have this wonderful space to think and write, but you’re pushed a bit further by having an expert with a breadth of knowledge. Carolyn encouraged me to look at anthropological theory, for instance, which I had no idea about, and it totally changed the direction of one of my chapters. I really needed that door to open in order to give me a different insight.
Carolyn: There’s a lack of religious literacy in the culture today. Yet if one wants to understand the world in which we live, they need people like Jess to make that bridge, to give a sense of context with reference to history and how religion plays out in the here-and-now.
Jess: This is a subject that has universal relevance. It’s also an arena that has huge potential for misuse by people seeking to criticise or promote religion in today’s society. Religion is part of the daily life of the majority of people, but we’re currently lacking the historical knowledge that would allow it to be explored in a deeper way. As the quote says, ‘those who don’t learn the lessons of history will be forced to relive them’.
About Carolyn and Jess
- Carolyn Muessig is Director of the Bristol Institute of Research in the Humanities and Arts (BIRTHA) and Co-Director of the University of Bristol Centre for Christianity and Culture. She recently co-edited A companion to Catherine of Siena (Leiden: Brill 2012).
- Jessica Cheetham obtained a first-class undergraduate degree and is currently undertaking a PhD looking at mind-body struggles of women in pre-modern history.
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