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Professor's book highlights widowhood during Middle Ages

by Shelby Toth - News Editor
Tue, Dec 4th 2018 11:30 am

During her graduate studies, the College at Brockport associate professor of history Katherine Clark Walter sat in a manuscript library in Munich, Germany. With one manuscript open in front of her and stacks of reference books surrounding her, she understood just how lucky she was to be there.

Clark Walter did part of her research in Germany for her recently published first book. The book is titled “The Profession of Widowhood: Widows, Pastoral Care, and Medieval Models of Holiness.” According to the listing for the book online, it “explores how the idea of ‘true’ widowhood was central to pre-modern ideas concerning marriage and of female identity more generally,” as well as how the ideal widow “evolved from and reinforced ancient social and religious sensibilities of chastity, loyalty and grief as gendered ‘work.’”

Clark Walter explained the book is essentially a history of widowhood and how women in the Middle Ages saw it as almost a religion-based job. She also worked to answer a number of questions surrounding the topic.

“How do medieval people conceive of themselves, in this case widows,” Clark Walter asked. “What were the ways available that people understood their own lives, and how did they sometimes find an identity that served them well in their own lives? Those were kind of the bigger questions that I hoped to answer by looking at this aspect of women’s experience in the Middle Ages.”

As previously mentioned, Clark Walter did research in Germany as part of her process. However, the journey of writing the book began farther back, rooting in her undergraduate studies. Her undergraduate advisor at the University of Richmond, where Clark Walter received her bachleor of arts in history and music, sparked her interest in medieval history, specifically concerning women and widows during that time. Clark Walter’s advisor was researching a well documented English woman named Elizabeth alive in the 14th century, who, due to multiple marriages and land possession issues, had been well documented throughout the Middle Ages. 

“I was fascinated by the way she was able to figure out this person…” Clark Walter said. “And a big part of her identity was being a widow. Later, when I was in graduate school, and I had written some papers on this kind of thing, working with my undergraduate advisor… I realized that widowed women were a big focus of how the early church was trying to characterize the behavior of women. I was like ‘hey, I would really like to see how this plays out in the Middle Ages.’”

With this desire in mind, Clark Walter decided to make it the topic of her dissertation.

“I said ‘that’s going to be my dissertation, I’m going to look at the ways the early church developed ideas on womanhood and how people like this lady Elizabeth in England would have received that knowledge and would’ve understood her role in her social identity,’” Clark Walter said. “And that was really always my goal, to try and see how somebody like Elizabeth would’ve understood herself in the 14th century.”

Clark Walter finished her dissertation in 2002, with the intent of turning it into a book down the line. She continued to slowly revisit the book after finishing it, until getting a leave from Brockport in 2009 to spend some time on the book while preparing to go up for tenure. Her goal was to get the book to a publisher as her tenure application approached. After conferring with another Brockport professor, Alison Parker, who had already published a couple of books, Clark Walter chose a publisher.

“One of the things we talked about was which press had books that were also about medieval history, or women’s history so that hers would be part of a group of other books that would be of the same subject, so people would find it there and be interested in it,” Parker said. “So, that’s how she picked Catholic University of America Press.”

After selecting a publisher, the next part of the process was continuing to copy edit and proofread the book. Finally, in the winter/spring of 2018, after extensively working with editors, clean copies of the manuscript were submitted. 

In the end, Clark Walter published a very specialized book. The amount of research needed along the way also helped to bestow Walter with a certain kind of prestige, as noted by fellow Brockport Professor Wanda Wakefield.

“She is the person who is the expert,” Wakefield said. “What she wrote is unique, and there are people who will absolutely find this super helpful.”

Wakefield helped Clark Walter “on and off” over the past few years, including helping her with the creation of the index and being, as Clark Walter noted, a “cheerleader the whole time.”

“[Clark Walter] is a remarkable scholar,” Wakefield said. “She took several strands of information and knowledge and really wove them together in a beautiful way.”

Parker who, as previously mentioned, aided Clark Walter in aspects of the publishing process, also had nothing but great things to say about her. 

“She is incredibly smart and has an incredibly strong work ethic in balancing the difficult thing that all professors have to do, which is to write and research,” Parker said. “Especially in her case, looking at foreign and even old languages, looking at things in Latin, reading old German, she has to be incredibly knowledgeable to be able to do this medieval history… it takes a huge amount of time and energy to put together a book like hers. It’s also a big and very important scholarly book that will get a lot of really good reviews and be well respected because she put so much work into it.”

While Clark Walter recognizes that her book isn’t the kind of book to be a best-seller at a Barnes & Nobles, that wasn’t really her goal. She explained her main goal was for people looking into that topic to discover her book and find it useful.

“That’s kind of the hope in writing a book, is that you get contact with other people, that they learn something from what you’ve done,” Clark Walter said. “And when they provide criticism and feedback, you learn something.”

The book is currently available for purchase online at Amazon and Target, as well as other online retailers. Clark Walter is currently working on another book that will be a collection of essays looking at ways traditional texts are paired with newer images in later medieval manuscripts.

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