Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alumnus Profile: Jack G. ('04) in Palermo, Sicily

Jack in Monreale, near Palermo, Italy.
This year I received a Fulbright grant from the J. William Fulbright Program  to conduct my dissertation research in Italy for my doctoral studies in medieval history at Western Michigan University, and I am now halfway through my time in Palermo, Sicily. The Fulbright program provides wonderful opportunities for graduate and post-undergraduate students to conduct research in all fields of study from the arts to the sciences. My current research in State Archives of the city of Palermo examines slavery and wage-labor for fourteenth-century Palermo. Palermo offers an important perspective on slavery in the Middle Ages because it possessed one the highest concentrations of slaves in the medieval world, as much as 12% of a population of around 50,000. I hope to understand the institution of medieval slavery better by comparing this ancient method of acquiring forced labor, with the labor markets for ‘low-skilled’, free workers.

This kind of study would be impossible for an American student to conduct if not for grants like the Fulbright. The best way for scholars to learn about slaves and laborers is to search through the extant records of notarial archives. Notaries were vital to the urban world of the later Middle Ages, particularly in the large, commercial centers of the Mediterranean that emerged after the eleventh century. They were the official record keepers for all business transactions such as bills of sale, marriage contracts, wills and testaments, and many others. They offer unique insights into the workings of everyday life. These are not easy documents to access, however; very few are published and they are typically written in Latin but in shorthand with scripts that can be daunting (most people who look at notarial hand for the first time mistakenly think it is Arabic!). Finally, the registers of these notaries can be very large, numbering in the hundreds of pages. The process of sifting through these records is strenuous and time consuming but also exciting. You never know what exciting revelations the next volume could contain. I often describe what I do as an archival historian as a sort of 'documentary archaeologist,' though I remain a lot cleaner at the end of the day than when I was digging at Murlo as a UE undergraduate.

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