Most Americans wouldn’t hesitate to reach for a heating pad, over-the-counter medicine, or cup of chicken noodle soup to ease a headache, cold, or other nagging discomfort. Indeed, pain is something we generally avoid in modern society. Amelia Kennedy, however, who joined the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty this fall as assistant professor of the history of medieval Christianity, found herself facing it head on — academically speaking — as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I took a medieval history course on a whim,” she says, “and ended up fascinated by how people made sense of suffering, pain, and illness in early medieval Europe.” As it turns out, medieval Europeans assigned great meaning to pain, attributing it to punishments and even blessings from God. It was a significant experience, and one that had variable interpretations.
Kennedy’s research focuses on the experiences of medieval monks and nuns, for whom some amount of discomfort was a shared experience widely understood by young and old alike. Younger monks might, for example, trigger a state of discomfort through more rigorous fasting, but then relax those practices as their bodies aged and aches and pains became an unavoidable part of everyday life. “Pain, illness, and aging forged bonds between older and younger monks and nuns,” Kennedy says. “It worked as a source of common identity.”
Kennedy’s current book project focuses on aging in medieval monasticism, c. 950-1350 — not just what aging theoretically meant for these individuals, but also how aging played out in various circumstances. Her research asks questions that are just as applicable today, for example: When do we become “old” and what does that mean? What’s important in quality eldercare? When should we retire?
“Though the circumstances of life have changed significantly since the Middle Ages, our bodies physically haven’t changed that much,” she says. “As a result, aging is universal and relatable, but understood in different ways in terms of history and culture.” Her book touches on intergenerational relationships, mentoring, caretaking, and other timely topics. This fall, Kennedy is teaching courses on Christian monasticism from origins to dissolution, as well as a seminar on life cycles in medieval Europe.
Some of Kennedy’s most recent work centers around monastic concepts of languor and torpor, analyzed through a disability studies perspective. Readers of medieval romance and literature are familiar with languishing: a love sickness that is so strong it affects a person’s judgment. Though languishing is often associated with romantic love, Kennedy explores the experience of languishing among the monks and nuns of early Europe — only, in their case, God is the object of their love and the cause of their languishing. Her recent and in-progress articles on disability also explore chronic illness and its impact on one’s sense of time.
“I’m very excited to think through and teach these concepts in the environment of the Seminary,” she says. “Age, aging, and disability are so important to think through, and it’s ironic that our advancing technologies haven’t answered some of the same questions asked in the Middle Ages.”