With time and distance you often look back on your life and think, “Oh my gosh, it all makes perfect sense.” Even some decisions I made almost ten years ago have informed what my dissertation topic is now. There is no way to draw a direct line with personal experience, because, you know, it’s not what you study in exams and so on, but it still is significant.
I lived in a social-justice based intentional community for two years after college. During that time I formed really close relationships with people, learned what it was like to function with a communal identity and to be a part of a community. It was a very formative time for me and helped me solidify what I wanted to be as an adult and what I cared about. I think my passion for and appreciation for how difficult it is to form a community, maintain it and keep those relationships vibrant informed what I want to do with my study of monastic history and what I want to do with my dissertation topic.
For my PhD dissertation, I am looking at 14th and 15th century women’s religious communities in Central Europe. I am really interested in exploring how community is articulated, formed, and maintained over time. I want to find out how women- especially, but also men- express their communal identity in the documents that we have. I really wanted to work on women. I knew that there is a lot of work that needs to be done still on women in history- women as leaders and actors in society, but the community piece was something from my personal life. I think that was what attracted me to monastic history- these people living together and being a part of something. That intrigued me. Of course being in graduate school I also did many research papers and exams and read to prepare for my dissertation, but I think there’s always- in every approach to a topic and finding your angle, finding your voice- that guidance that comes from your personal life.
I was fortunate enough to get a Fulbright grant to study for nine months in Vienna and work on my dissertation research. For the last year I have been at the Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung at the University of Vienna. It’s been a wonderful experience. The colleagues there are phenomenal supportive people and I’ve been working with a professor there whose academic interests and ideals are really in line with mine.
She’s really guided me in the ways in which I can put down my thoughts and craft this dissertation and make it my own voice. I’m really thrilled to have her help me think about my own work. One of the most valuable things about my time here was to have that guidance in how to make this project my own, how to give it my own voice, how to really focus on the things that are really important to me. Plus I want to make sure it is something that’s pushing the discipline forward.
Part of the reason I’m so excited to be in Vienna this year is I can go and see some of the former sites and current sites of these religious communities that I’m studying. As well as going into the archives and looking at and playing with some of the manuscripts. And by “playing with” I mean being very, very respectful and professional in dealing with these old, old priceless books, of course!
Amy Nelson is a PhD Candidate at the University of Notre Dame and was a Fulbright-Mach grantee in Vienna in 2014–15. Photo courtesy of Women of Vienna.