Friday, October 17, 2014

On Medieval Charity and Hospitality

     We are almost done with the medieval section of our course, dear reader.  This means a couple of things.  One is this: I must start teaching soon.  Another is this: I will miss learning from my medievalist colleague.  A third is this: it is time to start reflecting on how well or poorly our medieval predecessors cared for the needy.  This post is a start on this third imperative.
     I am most intrigued by what monasteries did to care for the needy.  Other medieval practices, like allowing the poor to "glean," are less attractive to me, although I see from a quick internet search that there is gleaning in the USA today.  As Dr. Rivers has shown, though, monasteries by the High Middle Ages had a whole protocol that revolved around welcoming visitors and providing food and lodging.  This could be applied to visitors who were not poor, but was also given to the poor. 

The idea that one could go to a new place and, whether poor or not, count on some basic hospitality and food, seems good.  I can see that a lot depends on the discretion of the monks tasked to watch the gates of the monastery.  They could be unsympathetic to you.  Also, given the drop in vocations to the religious life currently affecting the Catholic Church, among others, we probably don't have enough monks and nuns to do this kind of work today.  But what about this idea: houses of hospitality, which grow or make their own food, open to those in need, travelers and poor alike.  Is it totally impracticable?  If so, why?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On Memory, Commemoration, and Charity

     I was treated, dear reader, to our students teaching the class last Friday.  At Dr. Rivers's inspired suggestion, students fanned out around our campus, and beyond, looking for memoria.  What is a memoria, you ask?  It is some object that remembers someone or some charitable gift, such as a plaque on the wall, or a statue, or what is popular these days: bricks in a walkway.  At my inspired suggestion, students picked medieval-themed names and then quite thoughtfully reflected on what the memoria they found tell us about charity in our own day.  Most argued that memoria in our own day are quite distinct from memoria in the medieval period, since they are not about getting prayers from monks to get out of purgatory and, in fact, there is not much of a counter-gift for the charitable gift.  Most students said that at most, the counter-gift is being remembered.  One student noted that the counter-gift might be advertising, especially in the case of our College of Business lobby. 
     I am still not so sure there is no counter-gift.  If I were to pay for a brick in a walkway, do I get nothing out of that besides being remembered?  Let me try to think what else that brings me.  Status in my community?  Very literally a near permanent place (the walkway) in my community?  Influence?  A sense of belonging?  I am brainstorming here.  What do you think, reader?  Is there a counter-gift for charitable donations?  As NPR constantly tells me these days, they are offering counter-gifts from coffee mugs to river cruises for donations to them.

Friday, September 19, 2014

On Gift Giving, in the Middle Ages and Today

     The really cool thing about team-teaching with a medievalist, dear reader, is that I get to learn about medieval Europe.  I don't know a whole lot about medieval Europe, but I am increasingly fascinated by that period, especially the "Early Middle Ages," that mysterious and seemingly chaotic period of history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the year 1,000 or so.  So, I have actually been feeling thrills as I read Michel Mollat's The Poor in the Middle Ages.  Mollat leaps around between centuries and uses some pretty crazy vocabulary words (decretal, diaconia, gyrovagues?) not to mention the Latin everywhere, but then he gives us these awesome glimpses into this hazy world of the early middle ages.  I love it!  But I digress.
     We've learned a lot about gift-giving both in the distant past and in the present.  It seems to me that gift-giving was more prominent as a top-down exercise in the Middle Ages, in which kings and aristocrats would give gifts to the people under them as a way of keeping those people loyal.  Now, in an age that prizes equality of people much more, gift-giving is usually considered something that equals do for one another, especially for close family and friends.  But is gift-giving really more equal?  I sometimes give my equals gifts (people in my own generation, usually close family members.)  And I give my parents and parents-in-law gifts.  But most often I give gifts to children, my own and their friends and cousins.  Moreover, my parents, in-laws, and other relatives a generation or more older than me give more gifts and more substantial gifts to me, my wife, our siblings, and our children, than vice versa.  In some families, it seems that older relatives feel it almost a duty to give big gifts to their children and grandchildren.  I am, of course, overlooking major philanthropy: the large grants that wealthy people and families give to the public to use.  But even just within families, is gift-giving really more equal than it used to be?

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Community Service...

     I'll be keeping up with my Oshkosh students in doing blog posts every week or two, in our new community experience course.  This week's topic is community experience, or service, that we've done in the past.  This is a nice way of reflecting on things we've done to benefit our community before we start doing some of these things as a part of this class.
     Around the time I graduated from college, I was really interested in the history of Dorothy Day, an American convert to Catholicism and founder of the "Catholic Worker" movement, a movement among ordinary Catholics to focus on poverty in America and, eventually, peace in the world.  The Catholic Worker movement emphasizes both activism, non-violent protests in the streets, and service, quietly helping people who need help in your neighborhood.  I thought I would try to help some people in my neighborhood.
     I had recently moved from my hometown of San Francisco, California, to Washington D.C. to be a park ranger in the history-focused National Mall, where I gave tours of the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and other such marble or granite edifices.  I found out that an Episcopalian church near my apartment served a good, hot, free lunch every Saturday in the church basement, so I went and offered my services.  For a number of Saturdays, I can't remember how long, I would go and help cook, serve, and clean up these lunches.  I felt very proud of myself for doing it, though I was afraid, too, of what it would be like.  I am embarrassed to say that I continued to be proud of it, perhaps overly proud, but the fear quickly went away.  I really enjoyed those Saturdays. 
     We would arrive early, and one woman in her 30s or 40s was in charge.  Cheerful, energetic, decisive, she knew what needed to be done and directed a varying and motley crew of volunteers around.  I already knew how to cook for lots of people: I had done that in my co-op house at U.C. Berkeley.  So I often cooked.  We usually had baked chicken and mashed potatoes, with various other side dishes and desserts. 
     Serving the food was interesting: I was always amazed to see all the people who wanted to eat here on Saturday.  The basement (and its kitchen) was huge, filled with long tables and chairs.  Every Saturday the place was filled, it seemed, to capacity, and really noisy with conversation.  One Saturday, a mother of two or three children came up to us servers and angrily demanded to know why her children should eat a plate with a deformed piece of chicken.  I was the most "senior" of us three servers, so everyone looked at me and I smiled and gave the mother a new plate and took the old one into the kitchen.  Everyone seemed happy.  That memory sticks with me. 
     I think this might be the most significant bit of community service I've ever done so far.  When I started grad school a couple years later and then started teaching in universities, I usually thought I was too busy to do something like this.  But I miss it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Teaching a brand new course: Charity and Memory, 1066-1935

     Well, dear readers, I have neglected this blog for a whole year.  But now I'm back, with a new reason to blog on a regular basis: a brand new class at U.W. Oshkosh, indeed a whole new kind of class.  It's part of UWO's new general education requirements, requirements that are markedly different from those of the University of Pécs, as I discussed here and here.  It's called "Charity and Memory, 1066-1935," and it is the first class I have ever taught on the history of welfare, which is my research expertise.  It's also the second-ever class I have team-taught.  Unlike the first class I team-taught, I don't do much at all for the first half of the semester.  It's like I'm back in class again, while my team-mate, Dr. Kim Rivers, leads the class into Medieval England.  I'm excited to be a student again.
     The reason Dr. Rivers and I could teach this class, which touches on both our research expertises, is that UWO's new gen ed program requires students to do one class that integrates community service or, as the faculty call it: "community experience."  Dr. Rivers and I both thought that asking students to do some of the charitable work that used to be done by monasteries in her period and poorhouses in my period would be a natural fit.  Let's talk about charity and poor relief in the past, while doing charity and poor relief in the present!  It makes sense, does it not?
     Over the next fourteen weeks, our students and Dr. Rivers and I will all be blogging about our experiences and our thoughts on them.  I will occasionally link my blog to some others that are talking about the same things.  Until then, I leave you dear readers with a really cool image that graces the front page of our syllabus: The Seven Work of Mercy (1504), by the unnamed "Master of Alkmaar."

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Being back in the U.S.A.

     Well, dear reader, I have returned from Hungary to the U.S.A. recently, which gives me a chance to relate a few random observations I have made.  Reportedly, when Chuck Berry returned from international trips, he yearned for Baton Rouge, among other cities, as well as for sizzling hamburgers.  (Refer to the hit song "Back in the U.S.A." of 1959).  Well, I must say, I shared the rock-and-roller's yearning for hamburgers.  My first stop in Oshkosh was at a burger joint. 
     Here, in no particular order, are some other observations.
1) After six months overseas, I had little trouble slipping back into American culture.  I thought I would be so used to Hungary, that the U.S.A. would strike me as bizarre.  Not so, it turns out. 
2)  I rarely feel so in touch with "mainstream" America than I do at airports and airport hotels.  Maybe it's the CNN that seems to play everywhere. 
3)  I did find American news a bit jarring.  The newscasters were talking about totally different things.  The relationship of the Orban gov't to the EU did not come up once!  Instead, there is some sort of sequester still at the forefront of politics.  I guess I had not been paying attention.
3a)  American news does not that much about the rest of the world, am I right?
4) Hungarian highway gas stations/stores/cafes are a lot easier to access than American ones.
4a) If there are any restaurants near the highway around Milwaukee, they are not well-advertised.  Put up some road signs, people!
5) Hamburgers are delicious.  As much as I like to patronize stand-alone establishments, the Red Robin's Gourmet Burgers chain is doing something right.
6) We Americans sure drive a lot more than we walk.  But I guess that's not news.
7) I feel quite comfortable in the U.S.A.
8) I like my house. 
9) I miss my Hungarian family and my new Hungarian friends.
10) It feels a bit odd to say to Oshkosh friends or acquaintances: "Yeah, I was out of the country for the last six months!"

More on Oshkosh in upcoming posts....

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On the public history of welfare in America

     I am very proud to have a second-ever post on the Historical Society's blog.  It has nothing to do with Hungary, but lots to do with my research on the history of poor relief in the U.S.A.