AHA Member Spotlight: Courtney Thomas

Courtney Thomas

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Courtney Thomas is an independent researcher in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She has been an AHA member since 2007.

Alma mater/s: Yale University (PhD) and the University of Alberta (BA and MA)

Fields of interest:
Tudor and Stuart Britain, with particular reference to the Elizabethan period; concepts of honor and honor culture in early modern England; gender construction and role maintenance at the social level in early modern Britain; gender constructions in political thought and the place of gender in historiographical methodologies; analysis of the roles of early modern queens (both consort and regnant) and elite women; ceremony and the symbolics of display at early modern European courts; history of crime, poor law administration, and social interaction at the parish level in early modern England.

When did you first develop an interest in history?
I became fascinated with queens and elite women when I was in primary school. I fondly remember my parents taking me to the local public library every week so I could sign out a new round of popular biographies on figures such as Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and devour them. I began to appreciate history as an academic discipline when I started course work for my BA at the University of Alberta and was exposed both to issues in methodology and historical epistemology and to the scholarly examination of the political, social, and cultural history of early modern Europe. As a student in a history Honours program at the U of A, I had the opportunity to undertake a senior essay project that allowed me to focus in depth on a historical issue (I chose to work on a project that re-interpreted Elizabethan queenship through the sociological framework developed by Erving Goffman) and ever since, I’ve never wanted to pursue anything other than the study of history. Later, when I was pursuing my PhD at Yale, my passion for social and cultural history was further nurtured by my supervisor, Keith Wrightson, and my subsequent work has contained a strong social history aspect to it.

What projects are you working on currently?
I am currently in the process of transitioning my dissertation project into a book, tentatively titled Honor and Reputation among the Early Modern English Elite, 1530–1630. My work focuses on a close reading of multi-generational family paper collections in order to develop a fuller picture of how the concept of honor was employed in daily life. I argue that, in order to fully understand this important aspect of early modern life, we must move beyond traditional interpretations that see honor as operating within a gendered binary and as vested primarily in the issues of violence and sexual reputation. I also explore the meanings of honor for elite women alongside a re-examination of the value placed on dueling as an honorable pursuit in the period, and the importance attached to activities such as mediation, involvement in local governance, hospitality, household management, and the maintenance of family unity as markers of honor. The main portion of my project is an exploration of aristocratic family papers. These include such diverse materials as estate and financial records, diaries, and personal correspondence, sources that reveal much about the manner in which honor was played out in everyday social interactions and self-presentations. I utilize this material in order to explore the manner in which claims to honor influenced and guided the actions of these prominent families. My project also involves comparative analysis of codes of honor in early modern Spain, Italy, and France, a theme that I aim to flesh out more fully in the monograph project.

And, of course, the process of researching my dissertation has inevitably resulted in my coming across lots of fascinating sources in the archives that never made it into the dissertation and which I am interested in exploring in subsequent projects. For example, I am interested in pursuing work on mistress-servant relationships within early modern elite households. Household management (including activities such as financial administration, the extension of hospitality, and basic provisioning), an activity with which elite women were intimately involved, was a facet of honor in early modern England and it is a major theme of my dissertation. While researching this aspect of women’s involvement in the economy of honor, I came across many pieces of correspondence dealing with elite women’s interactions with (and management of) their household servants, and I am interested in exploring these relationships.

What is the last great book or article you have read? 
I recently reread Keith Thomas’s 2009 The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England. I had originally read the work as part of my dissertation research but hadn’t taken the opportunity to really appreciate it as a work of both historical interest and incredibly moving prose. I recently relocated from New Haven, Connecticut, to my hometown of Edmonton in Canada after graduating from Yale, and the five-day drive across the U.S. and Canada was the perfect chance for me to both dive into some good reads and reflect a bit on my own experiences as a graduate student over the past six years and my future career goals and aspirations. Thomas’s book (which, as one would expect from Keith Thomas, is full of an almost overwhelming amount of fascinating anecdotes and case studies) is an insightful look at the ways that men and women in early modern England thought about how one should live, what values one should have, and what goals one should pursue. And that connects in a meaningful way to modern ideas about how life and work are best lived and enjoyed. It made the drive home go by a little faster!

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Two fun blogs come to mind. The first, while perhaps a bit on the macabre side, is Executed Today, which, content-wise, delivers pretty much what one would expect. It is, however, endlessly fascinating. There’s also Harltos, Harpies and Harridans, which is a fun and cheeky look at famous historical females. I’ve also been getting into history themed podcasts quite a bit lately. The Huntington makes several of its annual lectures available as podcasts and Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” often has great history-themed episodes that feature experts in the field as panelists. And, on the lighter side, I’ve come to quite enjoy the podcast “Stuff You Missed in History Class”—it’s always entertaining and informative, if not exactly in-depth.

What do you value most about the history profession?
I’ve always seen the study of the past as an attempt to understand ourselves in time and so I greatly value the human element in historical study. There’s nothing more thrilling than being in an archive and looking at letters or other documents written by someone or about them, and getting to recover a small segment of their experiences as people in that past society.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
There’s actually not one single moment about the annual AHA meeting that really sticks out in my mind, it’s just something that I enjoy attending every year. The AHA annual meeting provides such a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues who work in other areas of the discipline, people I wouldn’t normally be able to interact with at more specialized conferences. It’s always wonderful to spend time and talk with other historians from a range of fields and the AHA is the ideal forum for that.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
It’s hard to say that I’m passionate about my two pet cats without sounding like I’m verging on being a crazy cat lady, but it’s true. Travel, spending time with family and friends, and curling up with a great novel (don’t all historians love a good narrative?) are my main sources of pleasure in my off the clock time.

Any final thoughts?
Having resided in the U.S. for the past six years while I pursued my PhD, I’m excited to be back in Canada and really looking forward to forging new intellectual contacts with colleagues here. I’ve also got a lot of ideas for research projects that I’m eager to begin exploring and, with the job market cycle for the coming year starting soon, I’m gearing up for another round of applications and, hopefully, interviews.

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