Nicole Demarchi is a PhD candidate in medieval history. She is enrolled in a joint program at the University of Padua, Ca’Foscari Venice, University of Verona, and University of Lorraine. She is currently working on the role of emotions and pain in the works of Paul the Deacon. She is the author of “Between Expiatory Religious Processions and Individual Escapes: Responses to Bubonic Plague Epidemics in the Historiae of Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon”. You can read her article in JCHA/RSHC 32 no. 2 (2022).

1. Your work largely focuses on the role of emotions and pain in Paul the Deacon’s writings. How did you come to this topic?

In a totally random way. During my master’s degree in philosophy, I took a course on the philosophy of emotions and the professor recommended Barbara Rosenwein’s books. I immediately became so fascinated with the history of emotions that I combined this new interest with that of early medieval history in my PhD project. I decide to study pain – as an emotion – for two main reasons: the first one is that the experience of pain plays a central role in Paul the Deacon’s life and works. The second reason has to do with the fact that currently there is relatively limited research on the role of pain in the early medieval context. I think studying pain as a historical phenomenon is important because it helps us understand not only how it has been conceptualized, expressed, and judged differently, but also how the pain of certain marginalized social groups has been rejected and ridiculed by dominant elites throughout history.

2. You stress the need for a comparative approach to be taken when studying the responses to plague outbreaks in Western Europe, which is what you set out to do in this article. How did you go about choosing your main sources for this study?

I became intrigued by the subject of individual and collective responses to plague epidemics by reading Paul the Deacon’s accounts on plague during the first Italian lockdown in 2020. This theme is not the main focus of my doctoral thesis, but it inevitably caught my attention. I thought: what do Paul and other early medieval authors tell us about how people dealt with epidemics in the past? So, I decided to compare Paul’s reports on plague with those of one of his main sources, namely Gregory of Tours, who lived in a completely different political, social, and cultural context. I think that this comparative approach between authors who are chronologically distant but somehow interconnected through textual references is very promising.

3. In your conclusion, you mention the difficulty in obtaining a complete picture of attitudes towards plague during this period given a lack of non-elite perspectives. Both authors you focus on are religious leaders. How did you deal with this hurdle in your analysis?

I think a good starting point is to read historical sources critically. This means asking questions about the author’s agenda, the structure and purpose of the text, and the context in which a text was written. Being aware that an author’s plague narrative is influenced by his political, religious, and pedagogical aims is essential to understanding why he represented plague responses in a certain way rather than another. This critical reading of historical sources also avoids generalizing the author’s claims, as he can only offer us a specific perspective on plague outbreaks.

4. According to Paul the Deacon, in 589 the river Tiber flooded Rome, damaging ancient buildings as well as the church granaries where thousands of bushels of grain were stored, causing famine. The flood also spawned swarms of snakes (multitudo serpentium) and an enormous dragon (magnus draco). What do you think this dragon was?

The presence of a dragon/snake during the flood of 589 is reported not only by Paul the Deacon, but also by Gregory of Tours (Paul’s main source) and John the Deacon. It is even mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis. Many scholars have argued about the religious and cultural significance that Gregory attributed to the dragon/snake. For example, Alain J. Stoclet have identified the dragon with the pagan God Asclepius. The exodus of the reptiles (Asclepius and his snake servants) would represent the banishment of paganism from the city of Rome. Martin Heinzelmann has suggested that the dragon and serpents in Gregory’s account may be understood as apocalyptic omens. Therefore, the dragon and snakes seem to be part of a complex interpretative framework that draws on pagan historiography and Christian symbolism.

5. Where is your research headed now?

In recent months I have been focusing on the role of love, affection, and intimacy in family relationships, with a particular emphasis on the Carolingian era. I became interested in these issues during my doctoral research when I examined the epitaphs written by Paul the Deacon for the three infant children of Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard. I was impressed by the fact that the epitaphs include many emotional expressions related to family affection and parental grieving. Thus, I decided to extend this initial analysis to other texts produced by different authors who worked at the court of Charlemagne and his successors. Currently I am still examining the primary sources, but I hope that soon I will be able to compare them to get a clearer overall picture of the role of intimacy in the Carolingian royal family.

6. Have you read anything good recently?

I am reading How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa F. Barrett. Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist, argues that many of the main beliefs we have about emotions are wrong. She argues that it is not true that emotions are universal, that they are hardwired and automatically triggered in distinct regions of the brain, and that emotions look the same everywhere. For example, just because someone smiles, it does not necessarily mean they are happy. Our emotions are not innate. Instead, they are a construction made by the relationship between the brain, our interpretations of bodily sensations, and the external environment. Thus, culture plays a fundamental role in learning and constructing our emotional concepts. As a historian who deals with emotions, I really enjoyed reading this book because it provides another piece of evidence to support the theory that emotions – and the way they are experienced, expressed and understood – can change over time and according to culture.