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Featured Member: Sara Ellis Nilsson (University of Gothenburg)

7 Dec 2015 1:08 PM | Andrew Klein

December 2015's Medievalist of the Month is Sara Ellis Nilsson. Sara, a lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, tells us...:

I have a PhD in History from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden; an MA in Medieval Studies (early) from the University of York, UK; and a BA in Psychology and Medieval Studies from the University of British Columbia.

You’re arriving at an airport for a research trip and the border control agent asks what you do. How do you answer?

Good question! I would probably mention the specifics of the research trip (e.g. going to the British Library to read some old books on saints), that I am a medievalist whose speciality is the early Scandinavian Middle Ages in general and early Scandinavian social history in particular. I assume that my answer would prompt a “what exactly is that?!” response (or dead silence), and I would regale them with a short lecture on the Christianization, the cults of saints and how fragments of liturgical books are integral to understanding history, at which point they would either sign up for my course or fall asleep.

What projects are you currently working on?

My PhD research focused on the new cults of local saints that appeared in Scandinavia in connection with the region’s Christianization. An important part of the project was identifying when and where the veneration of the new saints began, while a comparative approach highlighted the situation in Denmark and Sweden and identified similarities or differences elsewhere in medieval Europe. The main source material included fragments of the earliest liturgical books.

As a new post-doctoral researcher, I am currently in a transition period and am working on developing a postdoc project on the presentation of medieval bishops in Scandinavian hagiography. Otherwise, I am also starting work on a project on the experience of disability in early medieval Scandinavia, partly linked to the relationship between parents and children in that period.

At present, I am also finishing several forthcoming articles based on my dissertation, in addition to another article (the idea for which emerged during work on my thesis) which develops a theoretical approach to identifying popular piety in the source-poor early medieval period in Scandinavia. In addition, I plan to continue my research on early Scandinavian Calendar fragments and the so-called “red days” on which my dissertation is partly based, extending it to include all holy days throughout the entire medieval period.  

What do you think is the best part of being a medievalist?

One of the best parts of being a medievalist is that you do not have to feel trapped in one discipline. By that, I mean you can identify with, for example, archaeologists and at the same time, sympathize with historians. The flexibility of the field is inviting, while the humour shared by most medievalists makes some tougher aspects of academic life bearable. Plus, it is a fascinating time period and the books are (mostly) written on parchment!

Why did you join the CSM? What other societies do you belong to?

The reason I initially joined the CMS (on Twitter!) is simply because I am a Canadian and a medievalist. Plus, I’m currently living overseas and I would like to keep in touch with what is going on in medieval studies in Canada. 

I also belong to a number of other societies more specifically related to my research: Hagiographica Septentrionalia – Society for Hagiographic Studies and PREMODs (Premodern Nordic interdisciplinary network for PhD candidates and post-docs). Moreover, as I have been based in Sweden for a number of years, I belong to the Swedish History Society (Svenska historiska föreningen) for historians.

Where can we find/read some of your work?

I have published articles online in the journals The Heroic Age and Mirator. My other publications include those in various peer-reviewed anthologies such as Personligt talat (an interdisciplinary publication in which all contributions deal with life-writing), a few book reviews, and my doctoral dissertation (published at the University of Gothenburg press).

More information and links are available on my page or here:

Any final thoughts?

The fact that popular culture continues to be interested in the medieval period (and that includes the Vikings!) creates hope that medievalists will always be needed. A constant concern, however, is whether or not my work is “useful”, especially in an era in which science, or even modern history, is a more easy sell. I remain hopeful that the study of the distant past will always be deemed important in the end!

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