Associate Professor of History
It's safe to say that Juniata historian Belle Tuten isn't a big fan of "the great man" theory of history. For her, that methodology, with an emphasis on dates and focus on leaders of nations, is as boring as this sentence. For Tuten, history is all about stories—the more unlikely and humorous the better.
"History is the visceral connection of putting yourself in the story and saying, ‘What if that happened to me?'" Tuten says. "My students often think I go off on strange tangents but often that's the best part of the story."
Often, Tuten's scholarly interest is piqued by events that otherwise might have appeared in a Monty Python movie. "I love the moments in history where people do things that are completely hilarious," she says, smiling. "I love the names too. I've come across people named Odo Donkeyneck and Guido the Serf Twister."
Tuten's appreciation of both the sublime and the ridiculous inspired her to investigate a fistfight between an order of monks and an order of nuns that occurred in the aptly named Angers, France between 1050 and 1150. Her research revealed a window into monastic disputes that has implications on how medieval laws were formed. By following a single story, Tuten was able to find an interesting dissertation topic (she earned a master's degree and doctorate in history from Emory University). She is planning to further illuminate the fallout from this tale of religious fisticuffs in a book or series of articles on monastic disputes.
Historical stories, however sublime or ridiculous, have held fascination for Tuten since her childhood. Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., she read book after book on all topics, but she found a particular affinity for medieval stories, such as Robin Hood and the King Arthur legends.
"I liked stories where the girls got to do all the neat stuff," she says. "Those stories always seemed to be set in the distant past." After starting as a theater major at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., her love of reading and stories eventually led her to the history department, where she found herself doing some pretty neat stuff. She also found time to meet the man who is now her husband, James Tuten, a historian and assistant provost at Juniata. They both came to Juniata in 1997.
"She creates a sense of bringing history alive," says Andy Murray, professor of peace and conflict studies, who team-teaches "Napoleon to Monnet" with Tuten and physicist Jim Borgardt. "She is able to pull the students into the moment."
Judging from her course titles ("Sword and Scimitar," Wives, Nuns and Witches," "Filming the Dark Ages"), Tuten's storytelling gifts make for compelling history. She also has kept up her reading habit, preferring British mysteries these days. She's also found a mystery of her own. It seems a medieval bishop, whose poems are renowned in literary circles, wrote most of his poems to cloistered nuns. Tuten suspects that some of his correspondents were nuns in the same Angers convent she has studied. She's thinking of writing a book or article on that—a medieval "You've Got Mail."
Still, what really energizes her is standing in front of a class and teaching--telling stories. "I like that moment in class when I see on someone's face that they've grasped the concept for the first time," she says.
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