Liise Lehtsalu is an advanced doctoral candidate in Early Modern Italian history. In December 2012, Liise published an article, entitled “Changing Perceptions of Women’s Religious Institutions in eighteenth century Bologna” in the Historical Journal. She has presented at numerous conferences and will be presenting again at the Renaissance Society of America annual conference in Berlin in March 2015, in a panel that she co-organized. Liise won the History Department’s Peter Green Doctoral Fellowship in 2013, and she has also received grants from the Italian Società Italiana delle Storiche, the Brown History Department and Graduate School, and Wellesley College. Liise graciously agreed to share some details about her research:
What are you working on for your dissertation, and what kinds of sources have you been using?
My dissertation focuses on eighteenth-century Italian women’s and social history. I study women’s third order religious houses in Bologna and Bergamo and seek to understand the role that these particular institutions and their inhabitants assumed in eighteenth-century Italian society. The study of third orders brings to the fore the role of women and their lived experiences in shaping the institutional face of pre-modern Europe. However, third orders also offer an unusual lens for understanding shifting eighteenth-century discourses about women and religion, the changing relationships between states and their localities, as well as the localized character of the Italian eighteenth century (also called the “forgotten century” among Italianists due to the very limited scholarship on this period). I study documents from the archives of third order communities, all of which were suppressed during the Napoleonic period in Italy (1796-1814). I supplement these materials with materials from ecclesiastical archives and collections of pre-modern state papers. My research has taken me to Bologna, Milan, and Bergamo.
How much has the original project changed from what you originally envisioned as a result of your work in the archives? What suggestions would you share with graduate students who are entering their research years?
The original project was focused more on the later-seventeenth and earlier-eighteenth centuries. In the archives, I realized that I have to consider a longer time period – ca. 1650 to ca. 1810 – to explore the full arch of third order institutional development and the place of third orders in the societies that surrounded them. My dissertation also takes a comparative approach. The decision to do a comparative project was also born in the archives. During the summer between my first and second year in the Ph.D. program, I was in Bologna for some preliminary research and quickly realized that, while I could write a dissertation on third orders in Bologna, including another town would permit a better understanding of these highly variable and localized institutions. Over the next two winters, I took shorter preliminary research trips to Milan and Bergamo to get a sense of surviving archive collections and decide on a good comparison to Bologna. I decided to include Bergamo in my dissertation as the result. My advice to other graduate students is to be very open to where your sources lead you and also to think beyond the conventions of your particular subfield. Pre-modern italianists tend to focus on a single town for reasons specific to the pre-modern geopolitical make-up of the Italian peninsula and the de-centralized archival system that arises from it. For my project, the logistical nightmare of research was, however, worth it. At least I think so at this stage!
You recently presented a paper at the environmental history conference, "Bellies, Bodies, Policey" at the Center for Environmental History in Tallinn, Estonia. Tell us a little bit about what you presented - do you have plans to continue that research, and your work in environmental history?
The paper I presented came from a source I happened upon in the archivio di stato in Bologna. It was one late afternoon, I was tired from reading the loan contracts of one of my third order communities, and I decided to flip through some of the archival indexes. I found an entry for a census. I requested to see it the next day and found this really cool incomplete census record from 1796 that includes a wealth of information on eight urban parishes in Bologna. I didn’t know what to do with it at the time but I kept thinking about it on and off and read some secondary works. The census had been used for social history but my thinking was going more along the lines of historical demography and environmental history. Environmental history is very new to me; I have never written anything along those lines. The conference in Tallinn presented an opportunity for more formal, directed thinking. My paper discussed the lived and heard urban environment of Bologna in 1796. I got some excellent feedback and now need to think about where I go with this piece. But the plan definitely is to do something with it, with an eye towards publication!
You are an international student at Brown. How has that influenced your experience in the graduate program?
As a graduate student, I think my experience has been defined more by my research interests than by being an international student. Doing Italian history has meant that I need to travel far for research. Funding – both internal from the department and the Graduate School as well as external funding – has made it possible. I also decided early on that I want to be a historian of Italy who is reasonably well versed in both English and Italian-language scholarship on my time period and has contacts also to academic circles in Italy. I used my shorter research stays and my research year in Italy to build these contacts. Then I decided to stay on in Italy to write. I recently moved to the very north of Italy and have found a whole new, exciting history community. I’m in the process of becoming a member of the regional history association here that brings together historians from both Italy and Austria. I’ve also been inspired to keep working on my German. I already have ideas for larger projects beyond the dissertation that would shift my research geographically further north. I just need to learn to read eighteenth-century German between now and then! If I look at these experiences, I think any Ph.D. student regardless of their nationality could have them. The important thing is to know what is important to you and then do your research in a way that is true to that.