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Italian Medieval Literature With Maggie Fritz-Morkin

July 11, 2020 | Sophia Ramos

Assistant Professor of Italian Maggie Fritz-Morkin speaks with us about her work in Medieval Studies.


Philip Hollingsworth  00:03

Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, I speak with an Assistant Professor of Italian, Maggie Fritz Morkin. In our conversation, Professor Fritz Morgan discusses her research on medieval Italian literature, and its connections to the current COVID pandemic. I guess to start off, how’re you doing in general? I know it’s been kind of rough few weeks on top of everything else. But

Maggie Fritz Morgan  00:40

Yeah, I mean, it’s been it’s been a difficult period. I mean, the COVID transition sort of started out a little rough. I have a seven year old who I was teaching first grade from home while also teaching students and dissertation defenses and and so that was that it just it really slowed down that it kind of the research and writing process for me it was kind of that’s been on hold, but miraculously, he’s now in summer camp. So I 

Philip Hollingsworth  01:10

Oh, wow. 

Maggie Fritz Morgan  01:11

Anyway, back to my scholarly work, which is a relief and exciting. And this is a really fascinating moments to be working in. For a number of reasons, I think, you know, Boccaccio Is the camera on is, is it set in the middle of the bubonic plague pandemic. And he he sort of begins to work with this long observation of how all of the kind of all of the social bonds just disintegrate. And it’s, it’s this kind of unbelievable spectacle of horror watching, watching cities stop functioning, and watching Parents and children not able to care for each other anymore.

Philip Hollingsworth  01:54

Typically, when you think of studying medieval literature, you don’t think of these one to one, comparisons between what we’re going through and the stuff you’re reading.

Maggie Fritz Morgan  02:04

Yeah, I think that’s, that is absolutely true. And of course, there are some major differences between medieval Florence that had this plague pandemic in 1348, and our social situation now, but the parallels are incredibly striking, especially kind of thinking about how important time especially government workers and religious leaders are not really doing the the tasks that normally fall to them as institutional leaders and managers. And so the kind of all of the activity of the city stops and people kind of shelter in place or they’re they’re sick and caretaking, and institutional medicine stops working in the way you expect it to. So that’s, that’s been a really interesting moment. And then, you know, with the second part of our kind of, of our social upheaval right now, this kind of intense focus on Black Lives Matter and on the role of the police, it’s kind of made me realize that the Decameron one of the things that it does, is that it shows a world where social norms are not enforced by police. Right, this is, first we watched the kind of the crumbling of the city. And we watch the crumbling of the the sort of the city officials who are policing the streets who are collecting taxes at the, at the gates of the city who are making sure that the urban sanitation is functional, making sure that people are buried and conveyed to graveyards in the right way all of those people are gone. And so you know, what happens when, when our our sort of public services just aren’t there. And then they you know, the we have these young noble storytellers who go off into the countryside, and they tell all these stories about, about people using their wits and their, their kind of social acumen to to sort of promote the social values that are important. And I think the, towards the end of the Decameron  on the seventh day, eighth day, ninth day, we had many many tales of pranks, where were these kinds of these painters with their street smarts, Bruno and Buffon Miko. They are pulling pranks on people who aren’t conforming to the social norms that are kind of necessary to make a city cohere together. So there’s a physician who is incredibly selfish and narcissistic and doesn’t have any generosity doesn’t. doesn’t, isn’t generous with his kind of with his money with his privilege. He he just kind of shows his greed and desire to acquire more things. He becomes the target repeatedly of pranks by these kinds of these poor painters who are more able to kind of police So social relations in a much better way than than any officials code. So there’s no police force and the Decameron, kind of chewing on this idea whether or not we can read it as a what happens when society defends the police? How to along and how do we all get together in harmony and with shared values?

Philip Hollingsworth  05:20

Wow, that’s cool. Are you teaching any courses this summer?

Maggie Fritz Morgan  05:24

I’m not I’m really happy to be back to, to research and writing I’m currently finishing up, I’m finishing up a book on obscenity and authority in in medieval Italian literature. And right now I’m kind of having a having a good time working on a chapter that looks at competing theories of debt that Boccaccio sort of lays out. And he’s especially interested in how people negotiate sexual debt and erotic obligations. And he uses that. My argument is that he chooses problems of sexual obligation, because this is one place where women get to participate in the negotiation, right? So the world of business is overwhelmingly a male world in both watches time, this 14th century Florence. And yet that there are other models that there’s there’s a marketing deal model of exchange, right, where two parties agree to exchange goods for money or services for money. And that’s kind of one model of debt, I give you the thing and then pay me the money. And that requires the input of both parties. Now, there are other sorts of models that also kind of models of debt and obligation that govern sexual exchanges. Right. So one of those is this notion of the conjugal debt. And Paul, in the New Testament, in his letters in the New Testament sort of frames this in economic terms, he says that, that husbands and wives each owe this debt to the other, and that what governs sexual relations between a husband and wife, each spouse must provide sexual intercourse, like on demand of the other spouse, so when and he and Paul actually calls it fraud when spouses won’t pay, because thing that’s owed one to the other, which is also kind of a strange model of sexuality and consent, right? 

Philip Hollingsworth  07:24

Yeah, there’s still echoes of that you’ll hear echoes of that in certain parts of society. I’ve heard stuff like that, you know, it’s kind of amazing to hear that doesn’t seem that ridiculous, just hearing the way some people talk about their relationships with other folks or their partners or whatever.

Maggie Fritz Morgan  07:42

Yeah, absolutely. In the, in the, in the Middle Ages, kind of this was this was a real question of, you know, thinking about consent and sexuality based on Paul’s sort of discussion about, you know, when about consent and sexuality, lots of kind of medieval canon lawyers and jurists sort of when they talk about consent, they’re not talking about yes, being willing to engage in sexual intercourse that consent it seems to be more likely attached to the person who wants to withdraw from sexual relations for a time. So Gration collect some advice that says that spouses need to get the explicit permission and consent of their partner in order to take a break from from the bedroom.

Philip Hollingsworth  08:33

As a medieval scholar, a new focus on Italy, what drew you or what inspired you to follow that as a scholarly pursuit?

Maggie Fritz Morgan  08:41

Oh, wow, I think I have to go all the way back to my sophomore year of college when I just randomly enrolled in a Dante course. I was curious, and I was blown away by just sort of the the complicated architecture of the Divine Comedy, which seemed to me knit together in this impossibly tight knot and contain this kind of replica of the entire universe. Right. It has a literary history built into it. We thought Dante sort of take on classical literature, especially Virgil in the in the in needed, but also an entire catalog of all basically all of the literature that he knows, but it also includes a lot of political critique of Florence, other cities in northern and central Italy. And he’s also reviewing Aristotelian philosophy and mystic theology, and he’s trying to make the sort of representation of the moral world, how we should be in the world, how we should relate to each other and how we should fashion our spirituality that accords with all of the authorities that he knows so philosophical, theological, geographical, cosmological, it’s this just in case credibly rich, rich text that has something for everyone. He’s got like the latest theories of optics that he is in, in paradise that if he sort of takes these metaphors of how light behaves and says that that kind of divine love behaves more like light than like physical matter, and moods in the same sorts of ways. Yeah, so I think I was, I was just amazed that so much could be contained in one book, and Dante is a bit of a gateway drug from there, okay. At dark, and so many others.

Philip Hollingsworth  10:36

So you will be a Faculty Fellow at the Institute in the fall. Can you talk about the project you plan to work on? Is this the same book that you’re you mentioned earlier? Or is this a new project or

Maggie Fritz Morgan  10:47

when I propose the project, I propose to start working on my second monograph, which is on sort of medieval especially 14th century 13th and 14th century Italian and social history of frauds. I’m interested in the way that the culture is paying a lot of attention to fraud. And so my sources are, I’m a trained literary historian. And so I’m really interested in the way that Dante kind of meticulously catalogs all of these different types of fraud, he names 14, but then there are some subcategories, even among those 14 types. But then I’m also interested in the way that Boccaccio sort of shows us the pleasure of fraud and everything, how it can really be delightful and alluring, when you see when you see a prank or a scheme that that works, and how much we enjoy seeing that. So I’ll be looking at literary sources, but also I will be looking at philosophical, theological and legal resources and sources, too. So I’ve been just starting to look at a lot of statutes. These are the kind of the municipal laws governing Italian cities, and this is something that I plan to read a lot more of, between now and in the fellowship period is kind of looking at the way that, you know, municipal governments talk about fraud in their, kind of in their city ordinances. So we’ll see that places like Florence and Guru, John Seanna, all have officials who are hired or elected or appointed, who are specifically tasked with looking for fraud and discovering it, and then kind of putting a stop to fraudulent use of resources. I think, I think especially in democracies, and representative governments, which was the sort of government forum in these little cities, states in northern Italy, democracy really sorry, not democracy, representative government, and especially when it’s heavily bureaucratic has so many opportunities for fraud. And that’s why the cities kind of codify a response to it within their their legal codes. So it’ll be looking at legal codes, but then also going back even to early Christian thinkers, like St. Augustine, who writes a couple treatises, first, as a young man, a treatise that he calls on lying. And then the Second Treatise that he writes about 30 years later called against lying. They both sort of cover the same ground more or less, like you don’t have first a pro lying and then. But when I first read these texts, with undergraduates here, and I was so amazed at how easily UNC students were connecting. Augustine is kind of obscure, and I thought it would be a pretty boring treatise, but I had a student make a really beautiful argument about she was arguing that Augustine would say that undercover police investigations are immoral, unethical and ineffective. And she was able to offer a critique said, based in an a very old sort of philosophically constructed ideas that police should never or like investigations should never involve this kind of undercover activity because it taints the quality of the evidence. And it also taints the moral position of the investigator

Philip Hollingsworth  14:28

In reference to those municipal documents and things like that. How do you access those? Are they digitized and I’m just thinking of like folks are going to have to do whether you’re a graduate student or a professor, or I guess an autodidact or something like that your access to certain materials are really limited. So it’s just curious, you know, you have these old documents, city documents from you know, 14th century Italy. How do you get to those?

Maggie Fritz Morgan  14:54

I feel very lucky and that a lot of the medieval Italian stuff I choose from, from the municipalities of Florence, Bologna Feluda. Sienna, they there are modern additions and so, okay, and so I may be able to access those we don’t have so many of them here at UNC is library but they do exist and may be able to get them interlibrary loan. You know, I there are certainly archival portions of this project, which I hope to be able to complete in the next few years. Those will include looking at some cases of going in and looking at complaints of specific instances of fraud and how those were managed and dealt with in a court. Okay, that’s something that I can’t quite do from here, but I can at least get a start looking at the language that cities used in talking about fraud as they laid forth their expectations for the city and for the the way in which the government was structured and executed. Maybe you’ll say Another really interesting thing about about these medieval laws is that starting in the late 13th century, there were some cities, we’re starting to record them in vernacular Italian. Okay, so it says a lot about who was participating in government they weren’t necessarily trained in, in Latin, and they came from the professions, they came from noble families, and so it’s suddenly the documents of governance are more accessible linguistically.

Philip Hollingsworth  16:29

It makes sense, but I wouldn’t have thought of it that the all these documents are still in in Latin. So certain people couldn’t be were unable to read them. So this is a question we ask all our guests. What’s a book that changed your life?

Maggie Fritz Morgan  16:43

Dante’s Divine Comedy absolutely changed my life, I never would have walked into this profession had I not had this profound encounter with such a meticulously crafted gem of a work you know, as a as a young graduate students, Erwin panofsky, is Gothic architecture and scholasticism taught me to read books and objects in a way that I just didn’t know how to do before. So He traces the way that the architecture of medieval cathedrals replicates the structure of are the same kind of structuring principles that are present in literary works, too. So in the, you know, 12 13 14 centuries, there’s a medieval writers love to kind of encode order and structure into their work. So maybe they’ll have three parts. And they’ll have textual features that are something like columns that holding up dumplings, Vita Nova has long poems interspersed at very regular intervals that sort of make this kind of almost like a cathedral that you’re walking to. And something like the divine comic, right, it has these three parts. And then it’s also subdivided into 100 different parts. And these are sort of they’re not only structural, but they’re also conceptual, so about the structures, his ideas in the same way. And I think, you know, I’m not a trained art historian, but this also taught me to take meaning out of the structural principles that you can see in an architecture.

Philip Hollingsworth  18:23

Yeah, yeah. I guess you can see that too. And the fact that a lot of these early medieval works, were in poetry form, the epic poems and there, there’s that structure and meter and all that. Yeah. That’s great. That’s cool. Well, thank you very much, Maggie. And yeah, it was a pleasure talking with you today.

Maggie Fritz Morgan  18:42

Thanks for reaching out, Philip. It’s been a pleasure to hear how you’re doing COVID period.

Philip Hollingsworth  18:47

Yeah, yeah, I’m doing okay. It couldn’t be better. Check back at for the latest news and our fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcast on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at IAH_UNC

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