Hitting The Books

Author: Professor of History Michael A.Vargas

Title: “Taming a Brood of  Vipers: Conflict and Change in the Fourteenth-Century Dominican Convents”

Subject: The book is about a period in the history of a Christian religious order, the Order of Friars, usually called more simply, the Dominicans, after their founder Dominic of Calaruega.

The order started with a difficult but simple mission: they wanted to be the most learned men in urban society so that they could teach others how to follow God. That was in the thirteenth century. By the fourteenth century, however, the men inside the order were learning how to take advantage of the resources and status that the order — since it was now very powerful — offered them. They would sneak out at night to play gambling games, to hang out with women, etc., they ate meat against the rules of the order, etc.

How long have you been working on this?

The book expanded upon themes raised in my doctoral dissertation. If you go back to my earliest research, then you might say that I worked on this for about 10 years before it was published.

When was it published?

In 2011 by Brill.

How is it unique? 

Three things, I’d say. First, I have confronted an older way of looking at religious organizations. That old story of rise and decline is too simplistic. Instead I look at system failures in the organization and the conflict between individual friars and the organization.

Second, to get to this understanding I drew not only from earlier studies by historians, but also from theories and studies by anthropologists, cognitive scientists, institutional and social theorists. So, my work is interdisciplinary in a way that readers have found new and interesting.

Third, part of the book does a lot of counting of the activities of individual friars in a way that has not been done before.

All of that hard work of counting is, from a methodological perspective, something that historians don’t often do. But one of the results of that counting is something really important. I was able to show that what historians used to say about the impact of the Black Death is not true.