The Many Lives of Others

Portrait of Jion Daishi (Guiji)
A portrait of the 7th century Buddhist monk Jion Daishi (Guiji), created in 14th century Japan. (Metropolitan Museum of Art 50.137)

The following are resources, in the form images and artwork, short contextualizing essays and reading guides, and links to useful sites, geared to my history theory and methods course The Many Lives of Others: Autobiography, Biography, and Life-Writing in Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia. For each week of the course I’ve provided a short contextual essay, where appropriate, as well as other sources that might prove useful in navigating the sources and ideas explored in each unit. While this page is geared towards the use of students taking the course, I’ve included the scans of the readings for any other readers interested in this fascinating material and the questions of life-writing and historical memory that the course explores.

Week 10 (March 28/29): Explorations in Art, Epigraphy, and Letters

This week we will be examining a broad range of sources somewhat different from those we have been used to considering. All of these sources have in common the importance of materiality and ‘publicness’ in their form and use: even poetry, the most ‘bookish’ of these things, historically existed as much in recitation and in epigraphic forms of public display. In addition to the theme of publicness, many of these sources were explicitly meant to memorialize a particular figure, so we will want to think about what kinds of audiences were intended and how they were meant to relate to the person and life being memorialized. More generally, we will want to think about how we should go about using sources such as art work, epigraphy, and other forms of material culture: what kinds of constraints do we encounter, what kinds of questions can we ask, what kinds of context and further information do we need, and how do we relate this sort of material to more ‘traditional’ textual evidence?

  1. Portraiture I: Qing Military Portraits
Portrait of the Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao

After concluding a long, successful, and extremely destructive campaign against the Dzungars and the Turkic-speaking Muslims of Eastern Turkestan (which would be renamed Xinjiang- ‘New Domain’- in the aftermath), the Qinalong Emperor (reigned 1736–95) commissioned portraits of one hundred leaders and soldiers who made vital contributions to these campaigns, campaigns that stand as reminders of the extent to which the Qing Empire participated in early modern imperial expansionism on a scale not unlike its Western European peers.

These portraits were hung in the Hall of Imperial Brilliance in the Forbidden City, and hence were visible to tribute-payers and foreign emissaries visiting Beijing. Stylistically they are a testament to artistic and cultural Eurasian interconnectedness: the text panel is divided into Manchu (the ancestral language of the Qing) and Chinese, while the figures are rendered using a combination of contemporary Western European and traditional Chinese methods. This particular portrait presented above (Met. 1986.206) is of an imperial bodyguard, Zhanyibao, who fought in the Dzungar campaign; the poetry above him reads:

Barehanded he rode the giant whale,
Capturing Weinuo in battle.
The bandits’ heads were strung together
The length of his long lance.
With both hands he held open the declaration of war
All the way to Balikun [in Sinjiang Province].
Without [even pausing] to comb his horse’s mane,
He returned and reported to his commander.

In looking at this portrait, considering its context, and its textual component, we might ask: what was the purpose of this portrait? How was the viewer supposed to ‘read’ the portrait? What might the importance of ‘realistic’ portraiture, which was quite popular in the Qing period, say about cultural perceptions of self, person, and the like? How does this portrait resemble or diverge from that depicted below?

For Further Reading:

Ka Bo Tsang, Portraits of Meritorious Officials – Eight Examples from the First Set Commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in Arts Asiatiques, 1992.

2. Portraiture II: Lavina Fontana, Portrait and Self-Portrait :

Bianca Degli Utili Maselli and six of her children, by Lavinia F


Lavina Fontana (1552-1614) was an early modern Italian artist who is perhaps best known for her series of self-portraits, among the earliest for a female artist. She also painted numerous portraits of other people, including one of her masterpieces, pictured above: Portrait of Bianca Degli Utili Maselli (click the image for higher resolution), which also features several of her children. Painted around 1604, the portrait, now in a private collection, provides a spectacular look at early modern Italian clothing styles, as well as attitudes towards children and self-presentation. How might we ‘read’ the differing ways the boys and girls are depicted, and the apparent differences signaled in the depictions of the different individual children?

Less spectacular visually perhaps but also of importance is the self-portrait, reproduced below, that Fontana produced in 1577 (now held at the Accademia nazionale di San Luca). She shows herself seated at a clavichord with another woman behind her holding sheet music. What kinds of messages might Fontana have been trying to send with this painting? How might a self-portrait intersect with the claims and style of textual autobiography? Why would an early modern artist have wanted to produce a self-portrait, and what did it mean for a female artist such as Fontana to produce one?



For Further Reading:

Babette Bohn, “Female self-portraiture in early modern BolognaRenaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 239–86.

3. Letters: Examples from the Medieval Mediterranean, Early Medieval China, and Early Modern Korea:


Letter from Yeshu’a b. Isma’il to Nahray b. Nissim, ca. 1045-1096 (Princeton ENA 2805 16A). Note the swirling text around the margins, and the lines at the bottom of the second page which provide the letter’s ‘address.’ What kinds of visual clues can you pick up from this letter, even without being able to read the script and language?

This first letter, written around 1060, comes from a vast trove of Hebrew and Arabic documents discovered in the geniza, or storeroom, of a synagogue in the oldest part of Cairo, Egypt. Walled up for centuries, the numerous documents and texts and fragments that had been deposited and largely forgotten there were gradually revealed to scholars from the 19th century forward. There are numerous letters in the collection, which trace the lives of medieval Jews living and working across the Mediterranean world and beyond, letters which provide numerous insights in medieval life in the region. The letter translated below was sent by one Solomon ibn Moses of Sfax (in what is now Tunisia), to Nahray b. Nissim, a Jewish merchant from the North African city of Qayrawān, who combined far-ranging commercial activities with work as a scholar, a banker, and a leader of the far-flung Mediterranean Jewish community (the letter reproduced above was also addressed to Nahray). What does this letter reveal about the sender’s emotional life? His concerns and fears? What sorts of ‘strategies’ does he employ to get Nahray’s attention and aid?

I am writing to you, my dear master- may God prolong your life and make permanent your honored position and your high and noble rank- from Jerusalem, the blessed- may God let me and you and all Israel see its rebuilding and establishment- on the 20th of Tevet [January]. I am well and prosperous and full of gratitude to God who has let me reach this time and this illustrious view [of the Holy City]. I ask God the exalted to grant me and all Israel remission in his mercy, as it is written, ‘Come back to me, and I shall com back to you.’ [Malachi 3:7] God is much forgiving and merciful.

I have written to you several times before from Abu al-Bays and them from Ramle. I hope the letters have arrived, but I have not [received] an answer to any one of them. I hope that occupation with good things has kept you from answering. May you always be occupied thus, my lord, may God keep you, and in such a way that you are excused.

I arrived in Jerusalem safely and in good physical condition despite utmost exertion, as I was overtaken by snow on my way. The end was thus to the good, for he who hopes for the good will obtain it. God does not break his promise. I arrived safely on Thursday of last week in the middle of the month of Tevet….

Please buy on credit three bales of flax with the dinars you owe me and those to be received by M. Abū ‘Imrān Mūsā, son of Abū al-‘Ḥayy, may he rest in Eden, for twenty skins of oil. Take the balance from M. Abū ‘Alī Ḥassūn, son of Yaḥyā, may he rest in Eden.

Thus there remains nothing for me to do except to trust in God, the exalted, and in you. My travel [to the Maghreb] depends solely on God and on you. So, please do not be remissed, for I cannot know how long I shall be forced to tarry on my way…

From Shelomo Dov Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 159-160.

On the Seventeenth Day
On the Seventeenth Day: An album presentation of a rubbing or tracing of a letter by Wang Xizhi, made in the 13th century. Wang’s informal calligraphy and his letter writing style were remembered as models in later China, resulting in compositions such as this one which served both as objects of art and exemplars for contemporary letter writers. Met. 1991.380.

The second letter comes from early medieval China, and was written by Wang Xizhi (303-361), whose calligraphic letter writing style is presented above. It is a classic example of an exchange between two distant scholarly friends, and is strongly autobiographical in purpose, yet was also most likely intended for eventual public circulation. In time Wang’s letters and calligraphy became canonical, as we can see in the above album presentation of one of his letters. What is Wang’s emotional state in this letter? How might his presentation of himself and his feelings have been received by later readers and letter writers?

[Wang Xizhi to Zhou Fu:]

I reckon twenty-six years have passed since I said good-bye to you. Although we frequently exchange letters, they cannot dispel the longing for you that I have harbored for so long. Perusing your last two letters has only increased my sadness. Lately, it has been snowing heavily, and it is colder than it has ever been in fifty years. I hope everything is going well for you these days. I only hope to receive further news from you in the next summer or autumn. Of late, I have been missing you more than I can say. I have been taking cold-food powder for a long time, but I am still weak. However, on the whole and considering my age, I am fairly well. Do take the greatest care of yourself! Leaning over my letter, I feel nothing but disappointment and frustration.

From Antje Richter, Letters and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China, A China Program Book; China Program Book. (Seattle ; University of Washington Press, 2013), 129.


Yean (禮安) scholars_ circular letter to Yo˘ngch_o˘n (永川) scholars in 1792
A Korean scholars’ circular letter, from 1792. The senders’ names are seen on the left. Han’gukhak Chung’ang Yon’guwon, G002+AKS-BB55 B02001446E (Jangseohak Royal Archives, n.d.). What does the physical form of the letter indicate to you?

For Further Reading:

Hwisang Cho, “The Epistolary Brush- Letter Writing and Power in Choson Korea Journal of Asian Studies 75, no. 4 (2016): 1055–81

Antje Richter, ed., A History of Chinese Letters and Epistolary Culture, (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512-1635 (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

JaHyun Kim Haboush, ed., Epistolary Korea: Letters in the Communicative Space of the Chosôn, 1392-1910 (Columbia University Press, 2009).

S. D. Goitein, Portrait of a Medieval India Trader- Three Letters from the Cairo Geniza in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 50, no. 3 (1987): 449–64.

4. Epigraphy: Buddhist Monks’ Stelae in Medieval Korea

Stele of State Preceptor Hongbeop at Jeongtosa Temple Site, Chungju
Stele of State Preceptor Hongbeop at Jeongtosa Temple Site, Chungju, South Korea (Nat. Mus. of Korea, Bongwan-001960-00000)
Stupa and Stone Coffin for Master Jingong from Heungbeopsa Temple Site (Nat. Mus. of Korea Bongwan-001980-00000)

Finally, we consider a particularly involved form of epigraphy (inscription-writing): the large stūpas and stelae (see above) memorializing the lives of medieval Korean Buddhist monks. Below is a translation of a portion of a text memorializing one medieval Korean Buddhist master, Pojo Chinul (1158–1210), the founder of a distinct Korean school of Chan/Zen Buddhism. The passage given here, which was originally inscribed on a large stone stelae, describes his death and its immediate aftermath. As you read, consider how someone- most likely another monk or official capable of reading an inscription laden with classical Chinese- would have encountered this text in its original location, upon a stele similar to the ones pictured here, with the remains of the monk close by in a stūpa.

In the second month of spring in the second year of the Da’an era [1210], as a ritual for his deceased mother, he established a Dharma-feast lasting for several tens of days. At that time, he said to the assembly of monks, “I will not be dwelling in the world to talk about the Dharma for a long time. You should each be diligent and practice hard.” Soon afterward, on the twentieth day of the third month, he showed signs of illness, and after a total of eight days, he died, as he had foreknown.

The evening before [his death], he went to the bath room and bathed. His attendant [monk] requested him for a verse and asked him questions, to which the master replied in a calm and composed fashion. At an advanced hour of the night, he then entered in his abbot quarters, where he continued the question and answer session as before. At dawn, he asked, “What day is today?” “It is the twenty-seventh day of the third month.” The master, fully dressed in his Dharma robe and having washed his face and rinsed his mouth, said, “These eyes are not the eyes of the patriarch. This nose is not the nose of the patriarch. This mouth is not the mouth produced by one’s mother. This tongue is not the tongue produced by one’s mother.” Having ordered the Dharma-drum hit and the assembly gathered, he grasped his walking staff with six rings [on top] and walked to the Hall of the Good Dharma where he offered blessings and incense, and ascended the [high] seat as he had customarily done for ordinary rites…

His words were clear and their meaning was detailed. His eloquence was unimpeded, as fully explained in the record of his death. At the very last moment there was a monk who asked, “In the past, Vimalakīrti showed signs of illness in Vaiśālī. Today, I wonder if Mokuja is ill here today on Chogye-san. Is this the same or different?” The master said, “You should study whether it is the same or different!” Thereupon he grasped his staff and threw it down several times, saying, “All things of every kind are all inside this!” Then he grasped his staff and sat cross-legged on the chair, motionless, and he calmly passed away.

His disciples performed offerings of incense and lamps for seven days, during which the expression of [the master’s] face was as if he was [still] alive, his beard and hair gradually growing longer. After his cremation his remaining bone fragments were collected. These bone relics all emitted a five colored radiance. Thirty large śarīra grains and innumerable smaller ones were collected. His stūpa was erected on the northern slope of Suson-sa.

From Anthology of Stele Inscriptions of Eminent Korean Buddhist Monks, trans. by Patrick R. Uhlmann (Seoul: Compilation Committee of Korean Buddhist Thought, 2012), 373-375.

For Further Reading:

Sem Vermeersch, The Eminent Koryo Monk – Stele Inscriptions as Sources for the Lives and Careers of Koryo Monks Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 20, no. 2 (2007): 115–47.

Stele for Master Daegyeong from Borisa Temple Site (Nat. Mus. of Korea Sinsu-018236-00000)

Week 6 (March 5): Performing the Self: Further Varieties of Pre-Modern Autobiography

First off, make sure that you navigate to Zotero, download, and install a copy; we will discuss how to use Zotero and why in class this week.

1. Guibert Abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy and Paul J. Archambault, A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996): “Circumstances surrounding my birth,” “My early education,” “Reflections on the education of children,” “Difficult relations with my tutor”

The opening page to a 12th century copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, one of the first autobiographies known to us, and a possible inspiration for Guibert’s life-writing. (Royal MS 5 B.xvi, f.2v)

Guibert of Nogent (c. 1055–1124) provides us with one of the best looks into the life of a Western European medieval person thanks to his Monodies, an extensive autobiographical text from which you’ll be reading an excerpt. It is commonly described as the first Western European autobiography after St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, a work completed around the year 400 (the first page of a medieval copy of which is picture above). Guibert probably had the Confessions in mind, as in that work- which was well known from late antiquity forward, being, alongside City of God, one of Augustine’s best-known and most important works- Augustine traces the arc of his life from childhood forward, with considerable attention to inner states and struggles. That said, Guibert is a singular person and writer, who, while little known in his own time, has long been an object of scholarly fascination due to his psychological complexity and depth of depiction.

As you read this excerpt, ask yourself why Guibert goes into such detail about his early life, and what his overall attitude towards himself as a person is. How does he construct his sense of adult self in relation to his childhood self (and his own birth)? What is his relationship with his mother like, and what role does memory of his mother play in his life do you think? What is Guibert’s attitude towards his tutor? Compare Guibert’s depiction of his childhood to Hakuin- what kinds of similarities and differences do you see?

2. Hakuin and Norman Waddell, Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave: A Zen Miscellany (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009): “The Tale of My Childhood”

Hakuin Virtue
A calligraphic rendering by Hakuin Ekaku, in his bold style, of the character for ‘virtue,’ with a medieval poem above it, which translated runs as follows: If you pile up money for your children and grandchildren,
they won’t be able to hold onto it.
If you pile up books for your children and grandchildren,
they won’t read any of them.
No, the best thing to do is to quietly accumulate virtue,
in the spiritual realm.
Such a gift will benefit your descendants for a long, long time.
(Met. 2014.768.2)

Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) was one of the great Zen teachers of Edo-period Japan, helping to revive the Renzai school of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of sudden, spontaneous ‘awakening’ (kenshō) on the path to full enlightenment; extreme and seemingly random or erratic methods on the part of masters, along with the use of koans, paradoxical statements, questions, and the like used as tools for jarring one’s self from conventional ways of seeing things and towards awakening and eventual enlightenment.

Hakuin, besides being a major Zen master, calligrapher, and artist, also wrote autobiographical accounts of his life, which he hoped would guide and spur on his students. He offers a quite intimate look into his emotional states as a child, a young man, and an accomplished master of Zen. We also get a good look at what everyday religion probably meant to ordinary people in Edo Japan. As you read this account of Hakuin’s entry into monastic life, think about these aspects of everyday life, especially those that would not have seemed exceptional to Hakuin. How important was Buddhism to Hakuin’s family? How did he conceptualize devotion and religious life? What do you think his purpose in relating these emotional states and struggles is? Can you make a connection between Hakuin’s autobiographical writings and the examples of his visual art given here?

Hakuin Portrait of Daruma
Hakuin’s portrait of Daruma, the first master of Chan (ie Zen) Buddhism in China. Note the use of thin wash, spontaneity, and the rather humorous expression on Daruma’s face. (Met. 2015.500.9.3)

3. Devin Stewart (translator). The Humor of the Scholars: The Autobiography of Ni’mat Allāh al-Jazā’irī (d. 1112:1701) (d. 1112:1701). Iranian Studies 22, no. 4 (1989): 47–81.

Portrait of Majlisi the Younger
A portrait of Majlisī the Younger (1627–1699), an important scholar of the Safavid lands, contemporary to the subject of this autobiography. (Freer and Sackler S1998.16)

Ni’matallāh al-Jazā’irī was a Shi’i scholar from what is now Iraq, who eventually pursued a career in the Safavid Empire (Iraq was part of the Ottoman realm and hence technically under Sunni domination). This text is an excerpt of his autobiography, which, as you can see, is especially interested in his educational formation, and also gives a surprisingly central place to humor. As you read, pay attention to the role of humor- how does Ni’matallāh use humor? What counts as ‘funny’ by his lights? How does he depict his childhood? His parents? What other markers of identity, belonging, conflict, and so forth, appear in this text?

Week 4 (February 14/15): Varieties of Self Life-Writing: Diary and Personal Chronicle:
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage from Sister Margaret.

1. Ferrazzi, Cecilia, and Anne Jacobson. Schutte. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. The Toronto Series, 39. Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015.

These two women were roughly contemporaries, both composing- in a manner of speaking- autobiographies, both deeply religious and devout, both seen by some around them as living saints. Yet their lives- and their self-reported ‘lives’- were in other ways quite different. Sister Margaret was born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries; while she was not herself canonized, her testimony aided in the canonization of another religious sister with whom Sister Margaret was close. Cecilia Ferrazzi, of Venice, delivered her autobiography under the scrutiny of the Inquisition, as your short excerpt makes clear, having taken up what was essentially a ‘free-lance’ career as a living saint. Therefore, one of the first questions that comes to mind for both of these texts is the degree to which we can call these texts ‘autobiographies,’ and how much it matters that both were written at the bequest- and indeed, in Cecilia’s case, coercion- of others. How did the particular circumstances of these two otherwise very similar women shape their personal voice and their sense of self that the project to the reader/listener/transcriber?

In terms of their individual lives, think about how they describe their childhoods. What in their childhoods mattered to them for their sense of self and identity? How do they remember those years? Which family members or other people mattered to them? What kinds of physical and mental and emotional ‘spaces’ did they occupy? What were their ‘inner lives’ like? What role did the bodily and the physical play? What details of early modern life in Europe more broadly can we glean from these accounts?

2. Michitsuna no Haha, and Sonja Arntzen. The Kagerō Diary: A Woman’s Autobiographical Text from Tenth-Century Japan. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997.

Heian Courtiers
A 17th century depiction of Heian period female courtiers, from an illustrated edition of the Tale of Genji, credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

The Kagerō Diary, written by a woman known to us only as Michitsuna no Haha, that is, Michitsuna’s Mother, represents a different sort of autobiographic text, that of the diary or personal chronicle. It comes to us from towards the middle of the Heian Period (794 to 1185) in Japanese history, an age in which the Imperial Court remained important, even though the imperial family itself increasingly had little real power, most real political power being in the hands of the Fujiwara family, who controlled the imperial family through a strategy of marriage alliances. Michitsuna’s Mother lived in the rarefied environment of the imperial court, and her diary reflects those social conditions. As such it comes from a social strata just below that of Babur (at least, that is, once Babur became emperor- it was a long and as you’ve seen difficult process!). Michitsuna’s Mother’s long and often very emotional diary represents one of the earliest example of Japanese diary literature, a genre that would become remarkably common and form part of the canon of classical Japanese literature. Like much early medieval Japanese literature, many of the authors of diaries were, at least at first, women- men wrote in classical Chinese, and for some time writing in Japanese was seen as suitable only for women.

Questions to ask yourself as you read this text: What was the relationship between the author and her husband like, and what might that relationship say about the status and lives of elite women in this period? What sense can you make of other personal relations based on her account? How does she depict her own self? Why the candor and the emphasis on emotion? Was Michitsuna’s Mother a ‘religious’ person?

[For those of you who might be interested in pursuing this topic further, the diary genre continued to be used for centuries afterwards, by women and men. One easily accessible example- which I only recently discovered and hence is not on the course bibliography- comes from the thirteenth century, combining diary with travel narrative, and is titled Izayoi Nikki (Diary of the Waning Moon), by the nun Abutsu-ni (pictured below). It is available in English translation on JSTOR.]

  1. Paisius Velichkovsky. The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj. Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, 1989.
Paisi Velichkovski
A late 18th century iconographic depiction of Paisius Velichkovsky.

Unlike the previous two writers, Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) came from quite ordinary, rather ‘middling’ circumstances, being born in Poltava in what is now Ukraine into a priest’s family. His life, however, would be quite remarkable, as he set off on a journey seeking spiritual instruction that would take him into the lands of the Ottoman Empire to the south, visiting and staying with many Orthodox Christian monastics before eventually settling down first at the Dragomirna Monastery in what is now Romania, then, after the area was seized by the Austrians from the Ottomans, at Neamţ Monastery, where he would spend the rest of his life. Paisius was heavily involved in the recovery of ancient Orthodox spirituality, devoting himself to finding volumes of the Church Fathers and of spiritual writers from late antiquity and the early middle ages, which he often translated from Greek into Slavonic, allowing them to be read by Slavic Orthodox Christians from the Balkans north. His efforts at reviving spiritual and intellectual life among Orthodox monastics and others would be most important in Russia, where his translation of the Philokalia, a compendium of Orthodox spiritual writings, would be published many times, and where his example would lead to the starets tradition, which emphasizes the role of spiritual elders (the starets) who led lives of both deep contemplation and of discipleship towards others. Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov is a starets in the tradition of Paisius.

For our purposes, Paisius is most interesting because of the wonderful autobiography that he wrote, though it only covered part of his life and seems to have been left unfinished. In the excerpt given here, Paisius tells us his reasons for writing- what do you make of his reasons? What was his intended audience? What kind of image of himself does Paisius convey in the stories you read, and how does it differ from the image Babur or Michitsuna’s Mother sought to project in their autobiographical texts? How would you describe Paisius’ sense of self?

Week 3 (February 7/8): A Life of One’s Own—Medieval and Early Modern Women’s Lives:

1.  Schaeffer, Kurtis R. Himalayan Hermitess- The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004..

Schaeffer’s work is relatively self-explanatory, since I’ve included in your reading both part of Schaeffer’s study of Orgyan Chokyi, the eponymous nun, as well as excerpts from Orgyan Chokyi’s autobiography. For a little additional context, however, it might be interesting to examine the following two images, both of which can be thought of as ‘biographies’ of Tibetan male monastics. The first is of a lama, c. 1000; while the second is a ‘lineage portrait’ of an abbot from the 14th century. How do their depictions differ from the self-depiction Orgyan Chokyi gives? What is the significance of any sort of biographical or autobiographical portrait in a context such as Tibetan Buddhism?

Portrait of a Lama, Possibly Dromton
Lineage Portrait of an Abbot

2.  Ziolkowski, Margaret and Avvakum Petrovich Protopope.Tale of Boiarynia Morozova A Seventeenth-Century Religious Life. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000.

Feodosia Morozova’s life was defined by the drama of 17th century Russia’s greatest religious controversy, a controversy that resulted in a schism (a split in the church) and the emergence of the Old Believers. In brief, the Russian Orthodox, both clergy and laity, who would become the Old Believers staked out their position in opposition to liturgical and other types of church reforms that were pushed by both the patriarch (the head of the Russian Church) and by the czar. These changes to Russian religious life- some of which seem trivial at first glance but in fact ran deeply into social life and even bodily habits and actions- were the result of, among other things, visiting Greek Orthodox clergy who argued that many Russian practices diverged from genuine Orthodox practice, as represented by contemporary Greek usage. However, beyond concerns for liturgical order or connections with the wider Orthodox world, the Nikonian reforms, as they were known (after Patriarch Nikon, a major player in the reforms), were part of a broader effort to centralize power in Russian religious and political life. Resistance to the reforms, then, was also resistance to the expanding power of the czar and of the central church hierarchy. The Old Believers- who still exist in both Russia and North America, where many of them would emigrate to escape persecution, under czarist and then Soviet states- would define themselves in opposition to the reformed church and the centralizing state both, and in time would develop their own institutions, literature, and roster of saints, including Feodosia.

As you read this account, look for ways in which Feodosia practiced her sense of self, and how she formed her sense of identity- what other people were most important to her, and why? How did she display her resistance to the Nikonian reforms? How did the fact that she was a woman shape her responses and the various responses- negative and positive- to her? What do you think the purpose of this hagiographical account of her was?

 3. ‘Life of St. Thomaïs of Lesbos, in Talbot, Alice-Mary Maffry. Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996.

St. Thomaïs’ life, which transpired, probably, in the early 10th century, is of particular interest because she was married, an identity that made up an important, if often unpleasant, aspect of her practice and status as a saint, and set her apart from the majority of female Byzantine saints. Her vitae is also very much about her parents, making the entire text a wonderful source of insight into everyday Byzantine life and identity, as well as ideas about how ordinary people might become saints and otherwise practice holiness.

To whom are Thomaïs’ parents compared? What sorts of things did they do to express their piety and devotion to God?

‘The name “Thomaıs” was given to her, a child who was born in accord with a promise, who by nature was female, but by virtue and ascetic discipline much more male than men. ‘ What are we to make of these lines? How does this vitae both conform to stereotypes about women, as well as transform them or do interesting things with them? How would you describe the status and role of women according to this vitae? How does this vitae ‘play’ with, perhaps even subvert, categories and renderings of gender?

What ought marriage be like, according to this vitae? What, this vitae suggest, does it often look like in reality? To whom is Thomaïs compared? How does she express her holiness and devotion? What sorts of places does she visit, and when? How does her husband try to restrain her, and why?

Week 2 (February 5): On Reading Hagiography/An Introduction to Research Methods and Questions:

1. Campany, Robert Ford. Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009.

Questions: What sorts of questions did Campany have starting out? What about previous scholarship on Chinese ‘transcendents’ left him unsatisfied? Why does he think focusing on the role of others in shaping and defining the xian (transcendents) is so important?

What kinds of sources does he use for this study? How does he plan on using them according to this introduction? What kinds of questions does he think can be asked of these sources? What kinds of theoretical sources does he draw upon?

What kinds of issues do hagiographic sources raise? What are some possible readings and uses that Campany does not want to pursue? What is ‘collective mentality’?
The long afterlife of hagiography: a nineteenth-century Russian depiction of the ‘toll booths’ described as being revealed to St. Basil in his vitae.

2. Sullivan, Denis., Alice-Mary Maffry. Talbot, and Stamatina Fatalas-Papadopoulos. McGrath. The Life of Saint Basil the Younger. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2014.

3. Aflākī, Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad, and John O’Kane. The Feats of the Knowers of God: Manāqeb Al-ʻārefīn. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2002.

Questions: Based on the understandings and ideas revealed in these hagiographies (lives of saints), what is that makes Basil a saint? What makes Rumi Mevlana a saint? What are the differences, the similarities? How do the two figures relate to their wider society? Why do people want to associate with the saint in these two accounts?

How should we as historians understand the presence of the miraculous in these stories? What do you make of these miracles and wonders? How do these biographies differ from modern approaches to biography, and would we even classify these texts as ‘biographies’ in the modern sense?

What can the lives of St. Basil and of Rumi tell us about the societies and places in which they lived?

Finally, what do you make of the dog Qeṭmīr? What makes him holy? Should we speak of animals as having ‘biographies’ (or hagiographies!) in a similar sense to humans?


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