Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Q&A: Literary scholar Thomas O’Donnell
Drawing from a study of medieval manuscripts and his own experiences in community activism, O'Donnell illuminates the role of writing in monastic communities.
March 25, 2015
Tom O’Donnell, a 2014-15 Stanford Humanities Center Fellow, is a literary scholar who studies how reading, writing and revision factored into the building of spiritual communities in Britain and Normandy between 1000 and 1300. While primarily a specialist in medieval studies, O’Donnell’s multi-faceted work ranges from 10th-century lyric to 21st-century music.
An external fellow who is visiting from Fordham University, O’Donnell draws from his previous experiences as a union organizer and community volunteer for his current book about medieval conceptions of community as expressed in the texts created and used by medieval monks and nuns. In his research for "Theoretical Lives," O’Donnell draws connections between writing and community, such as by exploring the role writing played in fulfilling the ideals of the monastic common life.
Here, O’Donnell tells us more about his current work and findings:
What is the focus of your current research?
I'm finishing a book on the intersection between English literature and experiences of community during the Middle Ages. My principal examples come from monasteries from the century-and-a-half after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
I've been really impressed by the way in which discipline and hierarchy play into the creation of communities at some monasteries. The twenty-first-century community-building I knew from activism tended to be based on communal decision-making and service, but in the Middle Ages, the drive to create unity often took a much more authoritarian shape. I have wonderful examples of monks scraping out something one of their colleagues wrote and replacing it with something else -- in one case, a statement about just how humble the monk was who had erased his colleague's work.
I don't think these are special cases of one monk lording it over another but rather the normal process of keeping order or preparing a "correct" text. Still, in a very hierarchical society the solutions these people discovered to create and maintain community were very different from modern communes, and the models they provide are often hugely unacceptable to modern sensibilities. You couldn't pay me to go back in time and live in one of these communities.
What drew you to this topic?
During college and graduate school I volunteered for groups like soup kitchens and labor unions where "building community" was a primary goal. The ways people tried to integrate themselves into a larger shared enterprise always interested me. The internal structures of these communities, too, were very complex, like any family or organization where there are friendships, rivalries, and a lot of emotion moving this way and that. It struck me that in my own field of medieval literature, we now know a lot about how writing can shape individual and group identities en bloc, but the nuts-and-bolts aspects of community life and their influence on the way medieval people created and interpreted art went relatively unstudied.
Since most medieval literature was produced in community settings, like a religious institution, household, or court, the absence of work on the give-and-take features of medieval literature was surprising. I decided to look at some English monasteries that were very self-consciously reorganizing their communities during the twelfth century to make them more "communal" -- for instance, by instituting new rules about distinctiveness in dress or about individual property. I wanted to see how these attempts to create community influenced the ways monks and nuns wrote and read and how literature itself made community more possible, apart from creating shared identities.
While monastic communities were certainly not the only community that mattered in my period -- even for the monks and nuns themselves -- they give us the most insight into how community was constructed and experienced for a very influential group of people.
In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic?
Very little of this material, which includes chronicles, collections of legal documents, saints' lives, and occasional poems -- has entered the literary canon or gets taught to undergraduates. I see my work partly as a way to introduce people to looking at these texts in a new way and to understand a little better what made them so important, spiritually and aesthetically, to the people who created them.
How do you conduct your research?
I had to spend a lot of time doing preliminary research in fields that weren't my specializations in graduate school -- in book history, religious studies, sociology, art history and even a little bit of music -- because of the highly integrated way that monks and nuns in my period used books throughout the day. It really became impossible to get a sense of how these people understood literature without looking at their culture in the round, as it were.
Other than that, I've spent a good deal of time in archives looking at the manuscripts these monks and nuns used themselves, because often the "community" aspect of a text only becomes apparent when you can trace the give-and-take among different scribes who were struggling to produce a document that represented the group as a whole -- often over several generations. Even very good print editions can't show you that level of detail. I've been very lucky to have a lot of support, so I've been able to visit great libraries in England, Normandy, and Northern France. Some libraries have digitized the manuscripts and put them on the web for free, and that has been extremely helpful when I couldn't travel. I don't think the project could have gotten off the ground without the kinds of access digital humanities provides.
What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?
I think they'd be surprised, first, at just how much can be gleaned from these texts when you start to ask new questions, and second, at just how fascinating and moving many of these works can be. People were very often disappointed in their desire to create community, whether because of absence or political disorder, and a number of my texts mourn possibilities of connection and solidarity that have been lost.