This book originated in a conversation over coffee between the two editors. The result was a decision to ask Cambridge University Press whether they would be willing to publish a book whose theme was inspired by the career and life of Elisabeth van Houts. In assembling the group of scholars who have written these essays, the editors became even more profoundly aware that Liesbeth has influenced so many people as friends, colleagues, and students.
The essays in the book can be left to speak for themselves. Their diverse approaches to a central theme must nonetheless be emphasised. All treat of generalised identities, male and female, social and ethnic. Many are set within the context of lived experience. This volume is intended to intertwine the study of identities with other strands of current medieval scholarship, such as the study of lives and histories – two overlapping but different subjects – as well as cultural and social approaches applied to an ever-widening range of sources, from legal texts to hagiographies and biblical exegesis. In all of this, it is important to adopt a more complex and wide-ranging notion of what constituted ‘identities’ by going beyond family and regional or national belonging: social status, gender, age, literacy levels, and displacement are among the many considerations that must be taken account of. Multi-layered, sometimes contradictory identities can thereby be considered in their full depth and complexity, to counteract the temptation to see a specific individual only as a woman, a monk or a legal scholar. This volume therefore aims to enrich the understanding of people’s identities – both as defined by themselves and by others, as individuals as well as members of groups and communities – through a multiplicity of approaches and sources. It is intended that new figures and new concepts of ‘identities’ will emerge from the dialogue between the chapters. An approach based on life-histories, lived experience, ethnogenesis, theories of diaspora, cultural memory and generational change will bring this out.
The people – real or fictional – under scrutiny in this volume are diverse, engaging, and fascinating in their complexities (and sometimes their contradictions). The editors and contributors of this volume hope that the multifaceted medieval humanity that emerges from the volume will be a welcome and familiar crowd to Liesbeth van Houts, who has contributed so much to make medieval people more real and three-dimensional to all of us. It is also our hope that all the volume’s readers will welcome this opportunity to celebrate a remarkable scholarly life and to benefit from the appropriately wide range of subjects treated by the contributors to this book.