Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

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“Divine Ambience” and Devotional Practice in the Middle Ages

Lauren Mancia (History) is fascinated by medieval religious devotion, particularly the devotion of Benedictine monks between the tenth and twelfth centuries. For her dissertation, she is researching the enigmatic devotional, intellectual, and liturgical culture of one particular Norman monastery, Fécamp.

She focuses on the writings of John of Fécamp (ca. 990-1078 C.E.), one of the earliest Christian writers to meditate on the suffering, not just the ultimate glory, of the crucified Christ, making him “one of the first to approach Christ with empathy, not just with awe,” she says.

Mancia Fécamp

Lauren Mancia stands before the ruins of the eleventh-century abbey of Jumi├Ęges, a medieval monastery that neighbors the Fécamp monastery, where there is no longer an existing structure.

She was first attracted to the Middle Ages when she traveled to Europe with her parents as a middle school student. “I walked into my first medieval church. Even as an adolescent, I was overwhelmed by how the church created a divine ambience — the height of the ceiling, the colors of the stained glass windows, the cavernous resonance of the hymns — and I came back intrigued about the society that would go to such dramatic lengths to understand, commune with, and define the divine. Since then, I’ve returned to the same questions again and again in my work on the European Middle Ages: how did medieval people understand God, and how did their various understandings reflect contemporary events, intellectual developments, and emotional needs? What fascinates me most about the medieval period is the urgency of the religious devotion that permeates the society.”

With support from a Fulbright Fellowship, Mancia will spend eight months in Paris and Normandy beginning in January, examining manuscripts from the eleventh-century library of the monastery. She will analyze the monastery’s devotional texts (liturgies, saints’ lives, prayers, theological treatises) for evidence of empathetic devotion and examine marginal notations, underlinings, illuminations, and other paratextual markings for evidence of the monks’ interpretations of the texts.

She will then compare “the devotion expressed by John’s writings with his monastery’s devotional culture to piece together the dimensions of this devotion to Christ’s humanity in the earliest period in which it was practiced. Such an understanding will tell us about the medieval conception of God, the mechanics of medieval devotion, the character of medieval monasticism, and the emotional needs of medieval Christians. It will also inform our understanding of the early roots of the kind of humanism (the glorification of the human Christ) popularly associated with the Renaissance.”

In addition to her research abroad, Lauren has studied resources in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which “houses one of the foremost collections of medieval manuscripts in the world and has allowed me to gain a first-hand knowledge of medieval manuscripts and paleography and codicology. Additionally, the Beinecke has among its holdings a few items directly relevant to my dissertation work.”

In addition to her Fulbright Fellowship, Lauren is the recipient of an Etienne Gilson Dissertation Grant from the Medieval Academy of America, a John B. and Theta H. Wolf Travel Fellowship from the Society for French Historical Studies, and a fellowship from the Elizabeth Ann Bogert Fund for the Study and Practice of Christian Mysticism. Last year, she received funding from the National Organization for Italian American Women and the Yale MacMillan Center.

Lauren’s adviser is Paul Freedman. Anders Winroth (History), Denys Turner (Religious Studies and Yale Divinity School), and Fiona Griffiths (History, New York University) also sit on her committee. Lauren earned her undergraduate degree from Columbia in 2005, where she majored in English and medieval studies. She received a master’s degree in medieval studies from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 2006. When not at Yale, Lauren is a lecturer at the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to the study of medieval art.

Fécamp church interior

The abbey church in Bernay, France, completed in 1076.