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History Department

Faculty Profiles > Michael Vargas

Michael Saint

Course offerings include:


HIS 207 Introduction to Medieval History
HIS 348 Medieval Society
HIS 355 Medieval Towns
HIS 362 Medieval Spain
HIS 365 Jihad and Crusades
HIS 393 courses: Saints and Monks
Medieval Travel and Travelers
Kings and Kingdoms
Deep History (evidence beyond written word)
HIS 492 Senior Seminar in History on Sacred Violence

About my teaching and research:

I am a historian of the European Middle Ages, covering the period from the fall of Rome to the Protestant Reformation, a thousand years of important continuities and dramatic changes. Training as a geographer and urban planner before becoming a historian instilled in me a keen interest in the relationship of people to their social surroundings. I grew up in the Catholic Church and have reason to love and hate the medieval course of its progress. I have worked as a clothing salesmen, a groundskeeper, and a painter, so I know the meaning of hard work at the lower ends of the pay scale. I’ve been a mapmaker, a printmaker and ceramicist, and was even paid a few times for artistic endeavors, all which is to say that in the classroom I give as much attention to visual artifacts as I do to written ones. I have also managed multi-million dollar cultural enterprises – theater, dance, and opera companies, in which roles I learned a bit about the pursuit of power and the uses of money. I have a green thumb, an old dog named PupPup, and with half of my life behind me I’m just learning to play guitar. My students and I examine a great number of challenging topics, and we try to do it with sophistication and humor. 

My research focuses on the thoughts, actions, and ways of organizing that bound medieval societies together.  I study people when they do not work well together, in part because I think we can learn most for the present from these past moments of crisis, dissent, and experiment. My recent book is Taming a Brood of Vipers: Conflict and Change in Fourteenth-Century Dominican Convents (Brill, 2011). It recognizes that the convents of members of the Order of Preachers were homes, schools and workplaces, rich and complex lived communities that encouraged conflict while idealizing the quest for cooperation. The boozing and womanizing of the Order’s undisciplined friars in this period is legendary, which led me to ask what explains behavior that badly fits our assumptions about those who promised themselves to a religious profession.  I accept that the Order suffered from the cataclysms of the period – economic disruption, war, plague, and schism – but the older histories asserting that the friars were contaminated by factors beyond their control covers the truth in moralizing whitewash. My book carefully illustrates the complexities of the friars’ communal life, which included conflicted identities, competing loyalties, and plenty of good reasons to confront the demands of an organization growing increasingly bureaucratic and legalistic.  [Here is a link to the publisher’s website for the book: http://www.brill.nl/taming-brood-vipers].

Academic training:

B.A. (Geography), 1982, from California State University, San Bernardino
M.C.P. (Master of City Planning), 1984, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
M.L.S. (Liberal Studies), 1996, Columbia University
Ph.D. (History), 2006, Fordham University