As a medievalist, Jan Bulman studies European history in the Middle Ages – the years from about 500 to 1500.
“Just don’t call them the Dark Ages,” laughs Dr. Bulman, an associate professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of History & World Languages & Cultures, referring to the designation now rejected by historical scholars. “Most of the Middle Ages was a period of great cultural innovation and expansion.”
And what better way to study the Middle Ages than spending time in an ancient European castle!
“I’ve made many good friends while conducting research in France, including one who was a medieval archaeologist,” said Bulman. “Her family owns and has restored a medieval castle, high in the Cevennes Mountains near a tiny hamlet called St.-Germain-de-Calberte, and they often invited me to spend holidays there.”
Bulman says the castle was first mentioned in a medieval text from the late 11th century but was later abandoned in the 14th century. It was then acquired by the family’s ancestors who began the restorations.
“It’s in a very remote area in the mountains and there is no road to the castle, so it can only be accessed by a steep and rather treacherous footpath,” explained Bulman. “Nothing brings the Middle Ages to life like sitting down for a holiday meal in the great hall of a medieval castle, before a blazing fire, in a stone building that’s over 900 years old!”
Among the skills Bulman needed to study her field is paleography – the ability to read handwritten medieval Latin manuscripts. Her research has taken her to some of the great medieval archives of Europe including the Vatican Archives in Rome, the British Library in London, and the National Archives in Paris.
“Although working with medieval manuscripts is very difficult and time-consuming, I have never lost the thrill of opening a text that may be 800 years old, perhaps for the first time in many centuries,” she said. “All history is a vibrant ongoing discourse about the past, but I am especially drawn to cultural history.”
Bulman has also incorporated her research into teaching.
“One of the most satisfying byproducts of my research has been to integrate it into the classroom by teaching courses like ‘Heresy and Orthodoxy in the Middle Ages’ and ‘Magic and Witchcraft before 1700,’” she said.
Bulman is currently in the final stages of a book project to be published in 2020 and titled, “Witnesses to Sorcery: Magic, Terror, and Politics in Fourteenth-Century Languedoc.”
“It investigates a sorcery trial from 1347 in which a man was accused of using magic to attack the lord in the region, who also happened to the bishop,” said Bulman. “The book will draw scholarly attention to this important trial that stands at the intersection of political, religious, and cultural history.”
When not researching or teaching at AUM or sourcing material in the libraries and castles of Europe, Bulman spends time at her cottage in northern Michigan in the Great North Woods on Lake Michigan with her dog Pepin, although it’s not all relaxation.
“It’s isolated and peaceful,” she says. “So getting away from distractions lends itself perfectly to writing which is what I do there over the summer.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.org).