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Carl Watkins

carl watkinsName
Dr. Carl Watkins

Magdalene College

What is your field of history?
Medieval Religious History.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
Happy accident: as an undergraduate I visited Eamon Duffy (now Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge) and discussed with him the possibility of writing an undergraduate dissertation about medieval witchcraft. He told me too many people were writing about witchcraft and so why didn't I do something about ghost beliefs instead? That triggered a memory of some childhood reading of stories about folk belief which I realized were, in fact, translations/adaptations of medieval texts. This, in turn, encouraged me to launch into research into the wider subject of beliefs about the supernatural and to think about how stories about miracles, angels, demons and ghosts that are found in medieval chronicles could be used to help us think about medieval belief.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
Most of my material is produced by churchmen, ordinary men and women leaving few direct traces of what they believed. So unravelling how far the beliefs described by learned churchmen might reflect those of ordinary believers is therefore central to my work. As a result my work is like re-assembling a jigsaw with at least half of the pieces missing. I also use visual sources (for example medieval manuscripts offer many images of supernatural beings and events) and also material evidence left behind in parish churches (such as carvings and wall paintings) to explore how medieval men women imagined the invisible world.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
The 'central' middle ages (the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries) witness an extraordinary centralization of ecclesiastical authority. Historians often call this period one of 'papal monarchy' and that captures the way in which popes came to wield power which was, in many ways, analogous to that of kings. Other key trends are the emergence of heresy, the evolution of systems of persecution and the growth of cultural contacts with the world beyond Europe (which, for example, see Arabic learning about astrology and magic spreading to England).

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
The weakening hold of Christianity in the modern west has had a profound impact on the way in which medieval religion is studied. Historians increasingly think about religion using new tools (such as anthropology) to explain it as a 'system' of belief.
Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
We need to think more about the evolution of religious belief in the central middle ages and its relationship to late medieval religion and the Reformation. We are now inclined to think that late medieval religion was vibrant and healthy and that the Reformation was more a product of sixteenth-century politics than a result of genuine disenhantment with the old religion. If this is so, then the key to understanding the vibrancy of late medieval religion lies in the period in which those systems of belief formed — the central middle ages.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Robert Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages, 2008.
Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, 2004.
Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: a reader, ed. J. Shinners, 1997.