Researching AUM: Michael Burger explores medieval history

In high school, Michael Burger never found history a particularly engaging subject. He even initially planned to pursue the sciences until a book on the diplomatic institutions in Renaissance Italy redirected his career path.

“I thought it was the most elegant thing I’d ever read,” said Dr. Burger, now a history professor in the Department of History & World Languages & Cultures at Auburn University at Montgomery. “I realized history was not just one damned thing after another done by people in quaint costumes but could be about how practices evolved in response to larger conditions. I was hooked.”

He subsequently applied that approach and became a noted researcher on Medieval History with a particular interest in medieval church administration.

“Bureaucracy is a major force in our world today, but people forget that modern bureaucracy originated in the Middle Ages, within the medieval church among other places,” he explained. “After all, it was the medieval papacy that invented the file folder!”

The church’s bishops, he says, were backed by wealth making them the equivalent of today’s billionaires. His research has focused on the social and political stresses that these church leaders encountered while managing their administrations.

“Working on the social origins of Western bureaucracy has led me to research topics as varied as the buildings in which bishops lived and did business, and the history of the law. This kind of research also means reading and handling parchments (animal skins) with obsolete letterforms in Latin – reading these takes a lot of practice!”

An author of numerous books and research articles on medieval history, Burger is now applying the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to the study of medieval bishops’ administration.

“This will support another book, Power over Distance in Medieval Diocesan Governance,” he said. “Eventually I hope to get an external grant to extend the databases I’m creating to something freely usable on the web; it would be great to support AUM graduate students engaged in data entry.”

Burger and his wife, Miriam Davis who is also a historian, have traveled widely, but the couple frequently transition from traveling historians to tourists.

“We’ve visited every continent except Australia and Antarctica and enjoy putting what we see in historical context, but sometimes it’s good not to be an historian,” he notes. “So, we try to do a bit of ‘nature tourism’ for a real break. So far, we’ve snorkeled off the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Belize, Colombia, and in French Polynesia. I’m lucky that Miriam is more adventurous than I am – she talked me into getting into a shark cage off Hawaii. I did it because I thought if she were going to get eaten, we at least should go together. I wound up staying in longer than she did!”

Burger brings his travel experiences back home to the classroom and beyond in the form of public lectures. “I think college faculty should bring our expertise to non-academic audiences as well,” he says. “If what we do is so illuminating, we should illuminate as many people as possible.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 800 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.org).