Melodie Eichbauer
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Assistant Professor of Medieval History Melodie Eichbauer has been awarded a distinguished fellowship to advance her research into the cultural contexts of medieval law.

Hers is one of only nine collaborative research projects funded this year by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), which supports small teams of scholars as they jointly pursue research and coauthor a major scholarly work. As ACLS Fellows for two years, Eichbauer and Abigail Firey, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, will partner on the project “Codes, Communities, and Church: The Cultural Contexts of Medieval Law.” Examining changes and continuities in the expression, study and implementation of law in western Europe between the years 600 and 1300, they will collaborate on a book and develop a website of annotated legal manuscripts.

“The success rate for this program was 8% this year,” Eichbauer says. “We are so grateful for this opportunity.”

Melodie Eixhbauer and student Lori Boegershausen compare printed and digital versions of an ancient legal document.

Melodie Eixhbauer and student Lori Boegershausen compare printed and digital versions of an ancient legal document.

The award is an “an incredible honor,” according to Nicola Foote, chairwoman of the Department of Social Sciences and a professor of Latin American history. “The ACLS is one of the most important and prestigious fellowships in the humanities and social sciences. Melodie would have been competing with scholars from Harvard, Yale and Stanford for this award, and her success is an enormously positive reflection on FGCU.”

Established in 1919, the ACLS is a private, nonprofit federation of 73 national scholarly organizations. Its Collaborative Research Fellowships are supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Eichbauer, who also serves as assistant director of the Honors Program, has been an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences since 2011 and was awarded the Junior Faculty Teaching Excellence Award in 2014. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and a master’s and doctorate in medieval history at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

When the fellowship begins in August, Eichbauer and Firey will investigate how certain medieval groups — such as monasteries, university faculties and royal courts — adapted existing law to suit their interests and needs, and how the church shifted some of the conceptual frameworks of secular law.

“We are interested in how legal texts can be used as witnesses to varied political and social perspectives,” Eichbauer says. “As we both specialize in different periods of legal history, we are excited to learn from one another by studying law over the long term.”

Firey focuses on early medieval law, while Eichbauer specializes in later medieval law. Firey also brings experience with cutting-edge technology to the table. “This will be a phenomenal learning experience for me and something I can bring back to the classroom,” Eichbauer says.

What’s more, the open-access website the pair produces will display annotated images of medieval legal manuscripts discussed in the book. The website is designed for those interested in legal history, but who perhaps lack the background needed to work with such material.

“Unless you are trained to read them, legal manuscripts can seem foreign or scary,” she says. “We want to demystify the techniques needed to study legal history – to help others feel more confident in working with the sources. We see scholars in the humanities and social sciences becoming more interested in the way law expresses cultural values and philosophical modes of thought, and we hope the gallery of images will foster that interest.”

As contemporary debates over the Second Amendment and the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” illustrate, the manner in which a “community” interprets the law is as relevant today as it was in the Middle Ages. Researchers like Eichbauer may help us to come to a better understanding of the present by examining the past.