Publication Date

April 11, 2024

Perspectives Section



  • Europe


Cultural, Religion

This summer, my daughter met Jesus. It was not a religious conversion—she’s still 100 percent Jewish. But for me, a historian of medieval Christianity, the qualities of her encounter were remarkable, providing me with new insight into how scholars can uncover medieval historical experience.

A young girl stands with her arms outstretched in front of a statue depicting the death of Jesus.

Ellie becomes “part of the story.” Note how close her left foot is to the art, aching to be as much a part of the scene as possible. Lauren Mancia

When I married my husband in 2011, I made a commitment to our rabbi (and, importantly, to my mother-in-law) that I would create a Jewish home and raise our future children Jewish. My husband and I began to celebrate Jewish holidays exclusively, and when our daughter Ellie was born in 2015, we took the necessary steps to make sure to honor our commitment. She could celebrate a secular version of Christmas at my parents’ house (with a tree, songs, presents, no talk of Jesus), but there would be no Christmas in our apartment. The Easter honey cakes that I had grown up making with my Italian grandmother were easily transformed into Rosh Hashanah sweets. Even though I studied medieval Christianity and had written books on medieval monastic devotion, my child was as exposed to Christian art and stories as much as she was to any other culture’s.

So on her first trip to Europe in the summer of 2023, Ellie arrived with no extra preparation for what we might see, and I was trying to lower my own expectations for how willing my rising third grader might be to look at the zillions of cathedrals and monasteries whose glorious architecture I hoped to visit in our time there.

It was our second day in Paris. We were in the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, a museum filled with plaster casts of historical building facades and monumental sculptures. We had ended up there because the Eiffel Tower, just across the Seine, was unexpectedly closed because of a strike. We needed an easy alternative for our seven-year-old kiddo. Because there was no way an architecture museum could stand a chance against the Eiffel Tower in the mind of a seven-year-old, I tentatively led us into the medieval galleries assuring everyone that we could leave as soon as we wanted. To my shock, Ellie entered the space with widening eyes, slowly walking around, taking it all in silently. Finally, she stopped at a cast of a life-size 16th-century deposition group by Ligier Richier from Église Saint-Étienne in Saint-Mihiel, turned to my husband, and said, “Can you tell me this story? Why is everyone so sad?”

“There’s so much emotion,” my daughter said.

My Jewish husband began to tell Ellie the story of Jesus—his birth, his death, and how Christians believe he is God. She listened attentively and then once again approached the sculpture: “There’s so much emotion,” she said. And then she asked, “Can you take a picture of me, as if I were a part of the story?”

Scholars have long argued that medieval Christian art and rituals aimed at incorporating their viewers into the stories they depicted: in the 14th century, plays cast lay members of craft guilds as biblical characters; in the 12th century, Palm Sunday processions invited lay onlookers to wave palms at processed statues of Christ. I myself have written on how prayer texts helped medieval Christians imagine themselves at the foot of Christ’s cross, for example, thus allowing them to better empathize with Christ’s suffering and pain. But here I was, watching my child physically encounter Christian art for the first time with an untaught, visceral, emotional, embodied reaction. The immersive medieval art sparked in Ellie a deep, physical empathy with the images of a dying, suffering man and his mourning friends. In every Parisian museum we went to thereafter, Ellie did a scavenger hunt for images of a dying Jesus, frequently stopping to adopt the contorted postures of the characters depicted. When we attempted to fill in narrative or analyze details, she would shoo us away. She just wanted to dramatically, corporeally feel along with the images.

The pièce de résistance of our trip happened at the medieval cathedral of Autun in Burgundy, where Ellie encountered the Stations of the Cross, a series of images depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, for the first time. We didn’t point them out to her: she found them herself. As a reader of graphic novels, Ellie was immediately drawn to these panels that told a story, and much to our shock, she was moved to physically enact each scene as she walked along the church ambulatory in solemn procession. Casting herself as Jesus, Ellie followed the tale of Christ’s trials and tribulations, eventually pantomiming carrying a cross and then entombing herself on the church floor at the end of the sequence. I stared in wonder as I watched my child teach herself the story, interpreting through embodiment the emotional cues from the art. My daughter was enacting the very process that I had studied, written about, and taught, but had never before witnessed, and had never before experienced myself.

These days, my daughter avoids the nonfiction section of the public library, and she refuses to let us read the stories from the Hebrew Bible to her. A text-based delivery of history and religion was not her way into this material: the visual, spatial, multimedia, emotional depictions drew her in. Standing in Autun, I was reminded as both a history teacher and a parent that expository language is not always the best way to engage audiences; moreover, Ellie didn’t need a 21st-century solution like a video game to imagine herself immersed in these stories. There are different entry points to the past, and some of them are a lot more ancient (or medieval) than computers, virtual reality, or even printed history books.

Ellie’s behavior taught me something as a professional historian too. Almost all my knowledge of medieval Christianity comes from book learning, manuscript study, and the processes of rational inquiry sanctioned by our field. Monographs, not belief or experience, have taught me about medieval embodied responses to life-size deposition groups and the Stations of the Cross. Some of these have been written by monks and nuns who have an affective attachment to the history of the church that I do not. But watching Ellie allowed me to feel what it might have been like to be a medieval person encountering the story of Jesus for the first time through the drama of art and architecture. I realized there was a parallel between Ellie’s affective interaction with these sources and medieval Christians’: I saw that while affective, emotional, embodied engagement with historical sources is often dismissed as a method of research by modern, secular scholars, it might actually be a valid way of doing history. I want to emphasize here that I am not just talking about doing this in the classroom—so often we see experiential learning as something to use when we need to get our Gen Z students’ attention, but not as something appropriate for scholarly conferences or lectures. I am saying that by inviting scholarly audiences to inhabit and embody, for example, monastic texts, historians can understand not just what medieval monks thought but also what they felt—and that this, when paired with historical training, can be a legitimate method of scholarly inquiry.

We disembodied scholars do not do—instead, ironically, we read.

I was particularly well primed to see Ellie’s actions as a way of doing scholarship because of my current work, which marries medieval history to performance studies. In order to understand the beliefs of medieval people, we disembodied scholars do not do—instead, we read. This is a problem, because our very process makes us immune to the effects of affective doing so as not to bias our “objective” analyses; often, secular “nonbiased” historians think that the attachments that monk-historians have to their histories of the church are inappropriate, and that our analyses are therefore superior. (Affect studies, a scholarly field separate from the history of emotion, is slowly becoming interested in embodied engagement; see, for example, Donovan Schaefer’s Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin.) But Ellie’s actions should remind all of us that such detached investigations are in fact the opposite of the mode invited by medieval artworks.

Scholars must recognize that we can use our bodily experience to accompany our textual readings. Embodied epistemology can allow us to probe differently by activating the past in its complexity, rather than simply describing it. For instance, what happens when we enact medieval monastic sign language, instead of just translating the Latin text of the sign language lexicon? We need rigorous archival research to reveal these practices, of course. But if we don’t attempt to understand our sources in the embodied ways they were engaged in the past, do we ever really understand what we’re reading?

In The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory, Tavia Nyong’o talks about creative anachronism as repellent to many historians because we deeply believe in the virtues of our professionalism and believe that amateurs—like imaginative seven-year-olds—don’t “get history right.” But Nyong’o provocatively asks, Why don’t we worry about the ethics of the chance that our professionalism gets it wrong? Isn’t the risk of romanticization involved in Ellie’s performance-exercise worth it, if it means we won’t neglect the medieval history of affective experience? Today a scholarship of doubt, unease, trouble, and alarm seems more acceptable than the earnest approach of a child to a life-size diorama from the past. The cleric-scholars who once played an important role in medieval scholarship are often dismissed today. But if we scholars dropped all our learning and defenses, and if we allowed ourselves to be perforated, taken in by an embodied witnessing of the objects of the past, how might our understanding of historical experience transform? What historical discoveries can we make by doing?

Lauren Mancia is associate professor of history at Brooklyn College; associate professor of medieval studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; and a visiting scholar in the performance studies department at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

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