Katherine L. Jansen joined the history faculty at Catholic University in 1995, fresh from a yearlong fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. With two colleagues — John Kromkowski of the politics department and Anca Nemoianu, who was then running the study abroad program — she founded the University’s Rome program. She is the author of the books Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy and The Making of the Magdalen. In 2020, she was elected as a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America; the previous year, she was appointed editor of Speculum, a prestigious interdisciplinary journal.
What drew you to Italy?
I spent a very formative year in Italy when I was 10 years old. My father was an art historian who had won a fellowship to research in Rome and he took his young family with him for a year. He was working on a project on Renaissance tomb sculpture, and we kids were often taken along while he was photographing. So I spent much of that year in the churches of Rome, appreciating their beauty and some of their hidden treasures. I don’t think I realized what a deep imprint that year made on me until I got to college and found myself in an introductory Western Civ class. I had planned to be a biology major, but there was a lot of Italian focus in that class, and it turned on all of the lights in my mind. I started making all these connections to things that I saw in Rome as a kid. That was the moment I knew that I wanted to become a historian. It was an epiphany. I understood history’s explanatory power then and there.
What is your favorite class to teach?
I love every class I teach at Catholic University, and all for different reasons. I love teaching in the Rome program and introducing students to the historically layered city. I love teaching the introductory course to the Middle Ages, because that’s when you get first-year students trying to figure out what it means to be a college student. It’s exciting to see them move to a deeper, more informed way of looking at history. I’ve also been very fortunate at Catholic University to have a lot of graduate students; I’m always gratified to see them develop into mature historians.
Books you’ve written or edited frequently focus on preaching. Why?
There was an explosion of preaching in the later Middle Ages. Preaching became extremely important with the advent of the mendicant orders — Dominicans and Franciscans, primarily. They came of age in the 13th century. Given their mission to preach in a new way throughout Europe and beyond, they were itinerant, moving from place to place. As one eminent historian, David d’Avray, has pointed out, preaching was the mass media of the day. If one of these preachers came to town, you made sure to see and hear them. Preaching was important for the dissemination of Christian doctrine, teaching, and devotion, and was absolutely instrumental in the growth of devotion to Mary Magdalen.
What is your next project?
My next book is called The Relics of Rome. It’s a series of case studies recounting the history of Rome through its relics. Each chapter will examine one relic, its history in Rome, and how it embodies a piece of Roman history.