My current book project, Burning Bodies: Community, Eschatology, and Identity in the Middle Ages, questions what influence God’s fiery violence in Purgatory or Hell exerted upon human identities and actions in the Middle Ages. Burning Bodies interrogates the ideas that the authors of historical and theological texts in the medieval West associated with the burning alive of Christian heretics, tracing them from the earliest instances in the eleventh century until the advent of the internal crusades of the thirteenth century. Drawing on material from the work of learned, orthodox authors, the book analyses how their accounts of burning heretics alive referenced, affirmed, and elaborated upon wider discourses of community and eschatology. Central to this inquiry is the recurrent depiction of diverse types of human communities as different kinds of burning bodies. In the form of the exclusionary fires of hell and judicial execution, the purifying fire of post-mortem purgation, and the unifying fire of God’s love, medieval authors described processes of social inclusion and exclusion through the imagery of burning bodies. This interdisciplinary study draws together a number of scholarly conversations in the fields of European social, intellectual, religious, and cultural history to provide a new perspective on the origins and iconic images of medieval European persecution.

My work on Burning Bodies continues my interest in the ways that medieval people used the spiritual world to understand and to order the world of the living. The treatment believed to await certain groups in the next world could justify and influence the divisions enforced in this world. This justification, however, could also question these boundaries, through the power of human empathy to identify with the sufferings of the condemned. Finally, this imagining of another world parallels the engagement of a modern scholar with the past, and presents an opportunity for an encounter between the medieval and the modern.

For more information, see my profile on the Centre for the History of Emotions website.

The second direction of my current research arises from my ruminations upon the tendency of like to rejoice in like. In one respect, I’m interested in the way this adage can describe the relationship of a scholar with the past through the use of empathy as a hermeneutic. In particular, how the modern scholar often has emotional designs upon their historical object of study. I think that this adage has also served for me as an entry point towards a deeper engagement with the connections between the modern and the medieval, especially as it is being explored through queer theory. In disciplinary terms, a turn towards trans-historic (maybe sometimes ahistorical) analyses is both a promise and a threat. Thinking about these subjects, I’ve been drawn to the desire to speak with the dead in medieval and in modern contexts. I’m interested in how this desire is present in both periods, acting as a thread or chain, of a kind, running between them. Not only is the desire the same in both periods, but it is also marginalised in both contexts for a similar reason. The desire to converse with the dead, to ask them questions, to learn through empirical demonstration where they have been, is immature in both medieval and modern discourses. This desire is an interruption of idealised linear progressions. What is radically different, between the medieval and the modern, is why this desire is immature, what exact linear progression(s) it interrupts. For the medieval, this desire signals a spiritual immaturity, a need for empirical demonstration to buttress faith. In many modern contexts, the impulse to speak with the dead is situated as a failure in an intellectual progression from spiritualism to scientific rationalism, or a failure to fully realise oneself by leaving the dead behind in the past.

In addition to conversations with the dead, my current work is also interrogating medieval models of visionary hermeneutics which were used to explain how interactions with the spirits of the departed might have been possible. As I’ve outlined it above, one way we can think about medieval visions of the afterlife is as a genre that aims to propel protagonists and readers into an appropriate linear progression with which they are likely out of step. The attempt to reorient these subjects makes use of ways of knowing that suit their limited capacities. Catering to these capacities involves, among many other things, a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between polar oppositions, such as the material and the immaterial, the living and the dead, present and past, creation and eschaton. I think this type of blurring is one of the more remarkable aspects of visionary discourse as a mode of storytelling that attempts to explore the Augustinian “region of unlikeness” in which the tendency for like to rejoice in like is both a promise and a threat.