A Taste of Conference Work

Although I’m taking time off from school – or maybe because of it – I still think a lot about my academic work. Over the last few months, I did more research and reading about obscure and interesting subjects than I dreamed was possible for such a short span of time. I found it immensely satisfying, challenging, and frankly fascinating to read things that I would never have picked up on my own without the structure of research and coursework to guide me.

Now, at Sarah Lawrence, the most important and unique part of the system is conference work. This is basically independent study and research that is done for each course, with the professor supervising the process and helping out when and if needed. I thought I’d give a small taste of what this is like. Below is the handout I gave to our class, as instructed by the professor, towards the end of my writing process of what turned out to be almost twenty pages of essay, end-notes and bibliography:

Elizabeth Barton, The Holy Maid of Kent, and Anne Askew, Protestant Martyr

Political and Religious Importance in Early Reformation England

  • Elizabeth Barton – In 1525, Barton began to have visions and make prophecies. She soon joined a nunnery after an impressive public healing in a chapel in Kent, and became renowned in England for her prophecies. She prophesied directly against King Henry VIII, predicting his downfall should he marry Anne Boleyn. Executed on April 20, 1534, for treason.
      • What was her political role and what goals did she set out to meet? What political role did she play in her arrest and death? Was she autonomous in her actions or merely being influenced and used by her mentors?
    • Quote: A warning from Thomas More: “Good Madam… I shall beseech you to take my good mind in good worth… many folk desire to speak with you… But some hap to be curious and inquisitive of things that little pertain unto their parts; and some might peradventure hap to talk of such things as might peradventure after turn to much harm…”
  • Anne Askew – In 1545, after being kicked out of her home by her Catholic husband, Askew traveled to London where she was soon apprehended and examined for her Protestant beliefs. She recorded her examinations – the first in 1545 and the second in 1546 – and her manuscripts were published after her execution on July 16, 1546, by John Bale, a Protestant activist.
      • Were her words her own, or were they edited? What was her political and religious significance, before and after her execution? Was she used by others or working as her own free agent?
    • Quote: John Bale praises Askew: “Soch a won was she… whose harte the lorde opened by the godlye preachynge of Paule… “

A Monarch’s Responsibilities

History is a vast and incomprehensible mystery to me in many ways. We have facts about things that have happened in the past – we have dates, records of events, paintings reproducing the faces involved in those events, poems and diaries devoted to giving opinions and preserving what happened in a biased manner. We have all these things. Mystery, to some people, seems like a wide-open book, its contents there for us to look through, sift for what interests us, and indulge ourselves in knowledge of old.

I don’t feel this way. In my opinion, history is full of so much that we don’t know and so much that I wish I could know. True, we know when Martin Luther began to speak and write about his emotions about being a monk and part of the Catholic Church. In his instance, we can find quite a lot of emotional and sentimental writings from his own pen, or maybe quill, and we can see into his mind, as far as he lets us.

But what about others? What about the farmers and the spinners and the dye-makers that England had in such profusion in the sixteenth century? What were the children running barefoot through the streets of London, so much smaller than it is today, thinking? What games were they playing? What was the man smuggling illegal documents from Europe into the English Empire thinking as he worked? Was he scared for his life or merely waiting to get paid so he could go home to his wife and child? What were the nuns, sequestered in their cloisters, talking about? How did they speak to their young students, and how did they infuse them with a love and a belief for the divine? Through fear? Through love? Through simply offering worship as a fact of life?

And if these so-called simple people’s lives aren’t interesting enough for historians to dwell on – well then, what about the monarchs? How could Henry VIII hold such power in his hands and play with it so lightly at times? What did Katherine of Aragon feel as she was condemned? We can guess, surely, but how can we know? What of Elizabeth? How did she feel when she was sought after for marriage through the years? Did she decide on her own to remain a single ruler in order to maintain a stable throne? Did she, perhaps, not find men pleasing in the manner she would have been expected to? Had she fallen in love with someone who never returned her love or never could?

It’s bad enough, thinking of the power that politicians and governments hold today. At least it’s distributed power, and is more or less given by the people. But monarchs… They were born. Some of them believed they were chosen by divinity to be kings or queens. They held so much power in their cupped hands, that they’d let some of it run through their fingers to those sitting at their feet, just waiting for a pearl or jewel to drop from those mighty hands. I can’t imagine how such responsibility could be held without driving the holder mad with indecision, worry, guilt. Such are the things that the annals of history can’t reveal to us. Thoughts, emotions, private sighs of elation or grief.