Thursday, February 14, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Sara McDougall

Our Scholar Spotlight series continues, today featuring Sara McDougall, John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center. In our first interview, we noted that only three of the fifty contributors to the recently published Oxford Handbook of European Legal History were women. Like Women Also Know History, this Scholar Spotlight series aims to showcase female scholars and their work. Its special focus is scholars of European legal history. 

Sara McDougall is Associate Professor of History at John Jay College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and appointed to the CUNY Graduate Center in French, History, and Medieval Studies. She lives in New York.

Alma maters: Yale University, Ph.D. in History, May 2009. BA in History Boston University, 2003.

Fields of interest: legal history, family history and family law, culture, gender studies, social history, comparative law, medieval studies, world history.

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
My childhood dream was to become an opera singer and I started college as a voice performance major but was shocked to find myself desperately missing reading and writing. I seriously flirted with the idea of becoming a playwright but in the end it was reading and writing and teaching history, legal history, that I found the most satisfying and engaging way of spending most of my time, and I still feel that way.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I love the social justice mission of John Jay College, and our wonderfully diverse student body. I find teaching at CUNY satisfying - if always challenging - and take greatest pleasure in the fact that graduating from CUNY seems to improve students' economic mobility out of poverty. I am also really looking forward to co-teaching a graduate seminar with Julie Suk in 2019, "Mothers-in-Law," which will examine the legal history of mothers as legal subjects, as lawmakers, and as lawbreakers.

What projects are you currently working on? I am writing a book on the consequences of illicit pregnancy for mothers in medieval France. It investigates what women pregnant out of wedlock could do and did do, what was done to and for them. I have found a wide range of responses. They run a gamut from horror stories of domestic violence and killing to far happier stories in which mothers and children are provided for, and the mothers able to find work or husbands, and even able to resume monastic life as nuns (or abbesses!). While late medieval France generally deserves its reputation as a dangerous and intolerant place, for a variety of reasons it was more charitable towards women pregnant out of wedlock than we might expect. Certainly I have been surprised how often the medieval sources suggest efforts at better treatment of pregnant women, and of singlemothers, than we can find in the United States today.
I am also co-authoring an article on infanticide in late medieval Burgundy with Rudi Beaulant, and working as well with a wonderful group of scholars on the long history of infanticide in Europe and the Americas.

Have your interests evolved since finishing your studies? Not really! Many of the topics I write about are those that attracted me to legal history in the first place, the human stories we can find in historical sources, and court records in particular. Comparative work has always been important to me. I am hoping to begin more work with biographical and public-facing history.

What's the most fascinating thing you've ever found in your primary sources?
The records of royal pardon from late medieval France are a treasure trove for the social historian, or for anyone interested in law, culture, gender, or crime, of course. Reading these pardons we are drawn in and drawn out, we find ourselves alternatively rooting for the criminal, or deploring what to us seems like a miscarriage of justice when a villain escapes punishment. The storytelling in these pardon narratives reveal something about us as well as the behaviors of the past they document and justify.
For example, I was surprised and more than a little horrified to find myself cheering after reading a sad story of an abandoned young pregnant woman who at every stage seemed likely to seek to harm her infant and herself, but who instead decided to burn down her lover's house and subsequently sought and obtained royal pardon. I had not expected to find myself ever smiling at arson, but there was something that felt good in that her dangerous act, which allegedly caused no harm or injury beyond loss of property, but which also seemed to take vengeance not just on her lover but on the oppressive and intolerant patriarchy that we might assume would be all too quick to forgive his indiscretion while condemning her for "allowing herself to be impregnated by him." Much harder to enjoy are the all-too frequent accounts of rape and domestic violence that were also pardoned. These pardons, therefore, force us to confront both the complex role of mercy in medieval justice, and also some inconsistencies in our own ideas about right and wrong and the appropriate use of punishment.

Update: read Sara McDougall's recent Made by History op-ed in the Washington Post here.