Category Archives: PhD

Archive gems: Cesare Borgia, and Catherine de’ Medici

In the course of research in the archive, you come across lots of fascinating things that will never make it into the final thesis. This may be things which are just not relevant at all, or things which are relevant, to some extent, but don’t make the final cut of material to be included.

In my case, I look through a lot of legal records and statutes, as well as archives from religious institutions. Very little of it is focused on the monastery I study, so I sift through a lot of information about any number of subjects, looking for anything that pertains to Sant’Elisabetta or prostitution. Some of the information is the mundane payments made by the councils (a treasure trove to other historians!) which can be tedious to plough through. Medieval and early modern Florentines were consumate record-keepers, and the archive is full of every sort of account.

While looking through a particular fondo at the Archivio di Stato last week, looking for some examples of where the state-employed musicians were sent, I found an entry in the archive of the Signoria’s deliberations, dated 15 May 1501. The musicians were “to play for the Duke Valentino who is to be found close to Florence.” Here, Cesare Borgia, son of the Pope, ex-cardinal, and now commander of the Papal armies, was to be treated to the best music Florence had to offer.

Cesare Borgia, c.1500-1510

Cesare Borgia, c.1500-1510

Another entry from the deliberations states that in 1518 “the expenses made to honour the Duchess of Urbino in her coming from France are registered: the most notable are for fifty jousters and the triumphal carriages. In these were singers and musicians: it seems there were five carriages.” The Duchess of Urbino was Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, coming from France to take up residence with her husband, Lorenzo II de’ Medici. The couple had married on 5 May 1518 at Amboise.


The Duchess of Urbino, Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne

The Duchess of Urbino, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne

Here, the Florentine Signoria had lavished some expense on welcoming her to the city, her new home. Within a year, twenty-year-old Madeleine and her twenty-six-year-old husband would be dead (probably of plague, but malaria, and syphilis have also been suggested as causes), leaving behind an infant daughter who, after an eventful childhood and youth, would go on to become the most powerful woman in her mother’s native land. Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici was born on 13 April 1519, and is better known to history as Catherine des Medicis, Queen of France. Her Florentine past is often forgotten, paling in comparison to the sensationalised events of the latter half of her life, but there, in a little note of some money spent, is the root of major political events to come.

Catherine des Medicis, more recognisable as a French widow than a Florentine child

Catherine des Medicis, more recognisable as a French widow than a Florentine child

These mentions of famous figures appear throughout the archive, and I’m reminded how small a world sixteenth-century Europe was, and how interconnected so much of what we do as historians is.

Thesis Boot Camp

In January, I attended Dr Peta Freestone‘s Thesis Boot Camp (TBC) at the University of St Andrews. It took place over a weekend (Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and finishing on Sunday evening) and aimed to help some 30 doctoral students in their third or fourth years write 20,000 words of first draft quality thesis material.

Peta was a terrific motivational leader who was deeply encouraging, humorous and injected just enough friendly competition into the event. I had expected to write one , perhaps one and a half, chapters of my thesis over the weekend but was concerned about the maximum of three books allowed. In the end, I wrote two and a half chapters and didn’t look at any of the three books I’d brought with me. As well as having made that much progress on my thesis, TBC gave me increased confidence in my writing, and in being able to make significant progress quickly. It also renewed my enthusiasm for my thesis.

For every 5,000 words written, participants are awarded a squishy Lego brick. It's surprisingly motivating.

For every 5,000 words written, participants are awarded a squishy Lego brick. It’s surprisingly motivating.

TBC is an intense experience, particularly for someone who lives away from her institution and so rarely writes in company. The change from my solitary desk at home to working in a room with a large number of other students from different university departments was a jolt, but not a bad one. Everyone has their own writing practices and rituals, but moving away from your usual writing environment (even if you’re used to writing in company, you’re probably not used to writing in a hall with students you don’t know and without all of the books and materials you tend to rely upon) invites you to consider the practices which help you write and those which have become habits without significant benefit. For me (as I mentioned in a previous post), the preference for putting full footnotes in as I write is actually fairly time-consuming. At TBC, I opted to put the bare bones of the source in brackets to complete later in order to maintain my writing speed. It’s something I’m trying to keep doing at home.

TBCs are happening at various universities across the UK this year (and no doubt further afield- it was pioneered in Melbourne and is applicable to numerous types of PhD program, as long as writing a thesis of some length is required), so I thought I’d share my tips.

1. Prepare

The aim of TBC is to write as much as possible (with 20,000 words as a target). In order to do that, you need to know, broadly speaking, what you’re going to write about. I had plans for the chapters I was going to tackle already completed and I spent some time in the run up to the event looking over these and matching up my source material to the chapter sections I’d be using it in. This was incredibly useful, but in retrospect I could have done much more preparatory work. By late Sunday afternoon, I was running out of steam because I had written everything I had prepared, and more, and struggled to go on.

I cannot stress enough how important your preparation is. I recommend preparing way more material than you think it’s humanly possible to use in a weekend (the worst case scenario is that you use that material in the days after TBC, so it won’t be wasted effort). How ever much you think you can write, on your best days, with no distractions, prepare more than that. A lot more.

2. Embrace

There is a system underpinning Thesis Boot Camp. It’s not wildly prescriptive; it’s flexible, and no one’s going to check on if and how you’re working when you’re there. However, there were some strongly encouraged practices to help participants get the most out of the weekend. A key idea was to write, and not to edit. This sounds simple but the temptation to edit and correct is ever-present, especially when how doctoral students write is (almost?) as important as what we write. Going back to correct and edit, even to sort out typos, slows you down and breaks your train of thought. Resist. It took a fair bit of effort for me initially to not go and sort out those wavy red lines, but learning to quieten the inner critic with a firm “I’ll sort that later,” was useful.

Another recommendation of TBC is to use the Pomodoro Technique to focus and to make sure that you take some regular, short breaks. The basic principle is that you work for 25 minutes and then have a 5 minute break (constituting 1 “pomodoro”). You then chain these, with longer breaks after 3 or 4 pomodoros. I’ve had mixed success with this in the past but gave it another go at TBC, and I’m glad I did. I can’t say that my pomodoro-ing at home as always been so rigorous since, but it’s proven to be useful nonetheless. There’s also something entertaining about seeing a room full of people silently tapping at their keyboards get up virtually in unison and head towards the coffee room every 25 minutes with no obvious external stimulus to move.

In short, embrace the process and you’ll get the most out of it. I know some people were editing as they went, or were aiming for something of higher quality than first draft. I have no doubt that they ended up with some useful work done over the weekend, but for my money, go for broke and write as much as you can of shitty first draft that you can bash into shape later.

3. Break

It’s a tiring process, physically as well as mentally. I scheduled the Monday afterwards as a day off, and kept it. There’s a temptation to keep up the momentum and write frantically in the subsequent days, but you need a break. Peta recommends (and I agree) that you leave your TBC drafts for at least a week, preferably longer, before starting to edit them. This may not be possible, but leaving them for a time will help you to come back to them with fresh eyes. I’ve found it very difficult to edit my work without a sufficient break between writing and re-writing, so I’ve left my TBC drafts for as long as possible. I know that they’re not good writing, but I’m confident that they can be re-written into something useful. They key thing was to get my ideas down and to see what needs more work, what does work, and what I need to re-think altogether.


Over the Thesis Boot Camp weekend, I wrote 17,606 words (and made that up to the target 20,000 a few days later). The St Andrews cohort had reached a cumulative 250,000 words by the end of Saturday. Sadly, we didn’t have a total for the end of Sunday, but I think 400,000 words is not an outlandish estimate. That’s the equivalent of 5 theses.

My Top 10 Apps & Programs for Research

My Top 10(ish) Windows and Android Apps and Programs for Research  (and some mild stationery ranting)

I frequently stumble upon lists of invaluable apps for researchers which assume everyone is using an iPad, if not a Mac. I, for a variety of reasons, do not. I use a laptop running Windows 7 plus Android tablet (Samsung Tab S) and an Android smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S5) packed with apps I use for studying. As I don’t plan on switching to Apple any time soon (ever), I thought it might be useful to list the programs and apps that are available on non-Apple systems (though some are available on multiple platforms).

10 Programs for Postgrads


I would love to use Scrivener for writing my thesis, but until it integrates properly with bibliographical software, it’s not an option for me. History theses need a ton of references and if I don’t do them as I go, I mess them up.

Therefore, I use old faithful, MS Word. Word gets a lot of stick, some of it deserved. Some of it is based on ancient incarnations of the program and which aren’t really an issue any more. Some complaints are based on aesthetics, and I quite like Word’s interface. I have recently upgraded to Office 2016, which does not seem to have greatly changed from the previous version. There are also apps for Word, Excel etc for Android which I’ve found very handy.

Pros: it’s ubiquitous- just about everyone can open a .doc/.docx file; it integrates with bibliographical software (see below); it’s flexible and adaptable, in terms of styles, templates, and fonts etc; language integration- I need to be able to tell my word processor that chunks of text are in Italian so I don’t have to look at wavy red lines on foreign words; track changes and comments- much of the feedback from my supervisors comes this way; apps available for on the go working.

Cons: It has a reputation for instability (though I haven’t experienced this in years of using it); some people find it too cluttered and complex.

Many screens. Many screens.

Many screens. Many screens. There would be more but I took the photo on my phone.


There are numerous bibliographical programs available, some free, some not. I use Zotero. It’s not the prettiest- it has a distinct Windows 3.1 feel to it- but it’s utterly practical and does exactly what I need. It integrates with Word and allows me to edit the footnote format to suit the requirements of my department (which is, slightly inconveniently, like Chicago style, but not exactly the same, so off-the-peg formatting isn’t quite right). Adapting the style was a bit of a faff, but you only need to do it once. Zotero is free, with upgrade options for storing all your papers online. I store everything in the cloud and don’t need to store anything this way so merrily use the free version with no drawbacks. There is so far no app for Zotero but I can’t say that I’ve needed bibliographical management software on the go, so it’s not been a problem for me.


For reading on my tablet I tend to use ezPDF Reader app, but as Evernote and now Dropbox apps let you read pdfs, I find I use ezPDF less and less. Although I can annotate in Evernote, however, the annotation options in ezPDF are more varied and are finer, so I’m not giving up on it quite yet.

I have a Kindle and the Kindle apps on my tablet and laptop, and Google Books, but I’m no convert to their use for academic texts. I use my Kindle almost exclusively for reading fiction in bed or while travelling, and the app for image-heavy texts. Google Books is good for finding some weird old texts but I haven’t found it to be useful for anything else. That said, there are a surprising number of Italian convent constitutions available, for which I am grateful.


All of my notes and transcriptions from the archives are stored in Evernote*. I love Evernote. I can’t stress this enough. I love Evernote. It does all the things!

You can use Evernote in a variety of ways, on a variety of platforms and I’m sure everyone works slightly differently with it. I primarily use the stand alone program on the laptop and the app on my tablet. It’s a little difficult to describe really. In addition to archival work, I store articles from the internet that I either want to read later, or want to keep. There is a Web Clipper tool for browsers which lets you save pages to Evernote quickly and simply. You can also upload various other files. I primarily save pdfs of journal articles in this way, but it will take audio, images, docs etc. You can also just type right into the program and create notes that way. You can do all of this as easily from the app as the program itself. Evernote can also use your camera to photograph images, documents and business cards. It has fairly decent OCR software so it can “read” documents you’ve stored this way. It even has a bash at reading my photos of medieval Italian documents from the archives. It’s rarely successful with the handwriting, but frankly, sometimes I feel like I’m rarely successful with some of them, so I don’t judge it for that.

Screenshot of my current Evernote view

Screenshot of my current Evernote view. There’s probably something embarrassing here that I’ve not noticed.

It stores in folders and by tags, so you can easily cross-reference. Cross-referencing is particularly useful for academic work, and Evernote has helped me to make connections I’d likely have missed otherwise. As well as tagging, it has a great search facility and you can link one note to another to remind yourself of the connections. I also save conferences and calls for papers in Evernote, and set reminders as the date approaches so the program will nudge me to submit something. I have a note listing library books I want to check out, and a reminder set for the next time I’m in St Andrews so I don’t go to the library and instantly forget what I wanted to get.

As well storing hunners** of information, it syncs it across platforms (I have it on my phone and tablet too, and it’s available on the web) so you can access anything while you’re online, and you can make some or all notes available offline too. You can use Evernote for free, but the paid version offers some very useful additional functionality that is well worth the £35 per year. For me, searching inside pdfs and other documents I’ve stored in Evernote is incredibly useful, as is being able to annotate pdfs.

Proper paper and pen, for proper people

Proper paper and pen, for proper people

I also take lots of notes by hand. I find that I am better able to recall what I’ve written than what I’ve typed. I use fountain pens which restricts my paper choices somewhat. Moleskines, for example, though much lauded by people who don’t know much about notebooks, are now made from poorer quality paper and can’t take fountain pen ink. They’re nice, if overpriced, if you use a ballpoint, like a savage. (And if you insist on using a ballpoint, at least use hybrid ink, like a Uniball Jetstream. You’re not an animal.) I used Leuhtturm 1917 notebooks and Rhodia pads. Leuchtturm are the thinking writer’s Moleskine. The paper is much nicer, they have numbered pages for indexing, and are cheaper and less gimmicky.  Rhodia pads are also lovely. I prefer the dot grid personally, but they have lined and blank too. The paper is bright white and super-smooth. I unreasonably hate spiral-bound notepads. They’re terrible.



During my postgrad work, I’ve had two major computer crashes, by which I mean reinstalling Windows and wiping everything crashes. Both times, I lost not one word of work because I religiously back things up. Firstly, and most importantly, I use Dropbox*. This automatically syncs every file to the cloud each time it’s saved, instantly. I store all my files in the Dropbox directory and don’t need to give it another thought. I can upload to and download from it using the app too.

Secondly, I have an external hard drive for backups which I do not use religiously, although I should in case Dropbox suddenly goes bust and shuts down with no notice, or turns evil.

Time Tracking

I use Google Calendar for all deadlines and appointments. I don’t know how anyone who has any sort of schedule manages without it. It even counts down to your next event so you can see how much time you have (answer is always “not enough”). I periodically try to be hyper-scheduled and box off time for reading, writing, admin etc, but I can’t make that work for me very well. I live in hope though. Strangely, the app for Google Calendar is not fantastic- some functionality is missing and the widget doesn’t do what I need, so I use Calendar Widget: Month to see the month ahead quickly.

Hobonichi Techo monthly pages (December 2015)

Hobonichi Techo monthly pages (December 2015)

It will surprise no one who knows me that I also use a paper diary. The sub-psychotic pen rant above may also have tipped you off. In 2015 I used a Leuchtturm diary which I loved. In 2016, I’ll be using a Hobonichi Techo Cousin. This is one of my more ridiculous stationery purchases, but it was worth it. This is a Japanese diary, fortunately with days of the week and months in English too, printed on fantastic paper. Tomoe River paper is ultra-lightweight and handles fountain pens beautifully. This means that the diary is still moderately light to carry despite being A5 and having both week-to-a-view and day-per-page diaries. Foyles have the A6 English versions available, but A6 is no use to me, so I had to buy from Japan. If you do this you will have to pay additional VAT when it gets to the UK, which I grudgingly feel is fair enough, but you will then get stuffed by Parcelforce’s “admin fee” which is actually just a ransom fee and in my case was double the amount of the VAT. You are not in my good books, Parcelforce.

For tasks and small reminders (big reminders are in Evernote, or both), I use Todoist. I’ve used a variety of to do list programs over the years because I like ticking things off, and I’ve settled on Todoist. Again, it’s available online and as an app. It’s hugely functional and I like the natural language entry for dates. It’s also the only program I’ve found that lets you add a recurring reminder for every other day (rather than, say, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday etc) AND lets you schedule the recurrence for X days after you complete the task, rather than forcing you back onto the “correct” schedule, and I prefer this. These things matter to me.

This is how I work. I think most, if not all of these apps are available for a variety of platforms. I am a big fan of things which sync across platforms as I tend to want to use things on the hardware I’m using at that moment, not the one which suits someone else. I hope it’s helpful. If there’s something you use and love that I haven’t mentioned, please let me know!



*Referral links.

**hunners: Scots, similar to “hundreds”, but used for count and non-count nouns alike, means “lots”.

Technical issues

All of the archival remains of Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite are in Florence, mostly in the Archivio di Stato. The convent was closed in 1808, and all of its documents archived, meaning that there is a relatively rich resource for historians. I am, therefore, spending a few months in Firenze working on these records.

The rather underwhelming archive of Florence

The rather underwhelming archive of Florence

I arrived on 5 January but things have not gone altogether smoothly. My laptop was damaged on the flight- the screen completely smashed. i didn’t discover this until the evening of my arrival, and almost everything was closed the following day for La Befana. Once I found a shop to take it to, I had to get a quote for the insurance first, then ask them to start the repair. As a result it took over two weeks to get it fixed. It felt like a very long fortnight. The temporary loss of my laptop was difficult to deal with on a number of levels. I could use my table and a bluetooth keyboard in the archives, but that’s not much use for looking at the texts later and doing any sort of manipulation of them. I also found myself rather disorganised without a proper computer. It also meant that keeping in touch with friends and family back home was harder. Skype on my tablet isn’t the best. Hopefully, this will all be remedied now that it is back in working order.

A grim discovery

A grim discovery

My faithful Kindle also decided to give up the ghost a week or so after I arrived. Fortunately I brought a paperback copy of the Decameron with me and I have been reading that. Otherwise, I’d have had nothing to read at night other than a Danielle Steel novel I found in a cupboard of my apartment. I am glad it didn’t come to that. Although Amazon kindly agreed to replace my Kindle, I am waiting until someone can bring it over with them rather than relying on the notorious Italian postal service. This means I have another month or so to wait. Thankfully, I am not reading the Decameron too quickly and should be able to drag it out until then.

To cap it all, I poured tea over my portable hard drive, though that seems to have come through mercifully unscathed.

So, not the smoothest start, but I’m getting there.

On a more cheerful note, this is the Palazzo Vecchio.

On a more cheerful note, this is the Palazzo Vecchio.


Now that I’ve started my PhD, I thought I’d share the outline of my topic:

My research interests lie in late renaissance and early modern Italy, particularly women on the margins of society such as prostitutes and nuns. These interests come together in my PhD research which is focused on the monastery of Santa Elisabetta delle Convertite in Florence which offered a refuge to repentant prostitutes from 1330 to 1808. The aim of this research is to investigate how women entered the convent and what life was like within. Its inhabitants were from the lowest strata of society and lived in a state of poverty at Santa Elisabetta. There, women were subject to a program of reform which included low food rations and, unusually, no servant nuns. Santa Elisabetta offers a unique insight into the lives of women who were at the very margins of society: as women, prostitutes and finally enclosed nuns. It will fill an important gap in our knowledge of poor women and poor nuns by answering questions such as: Who were the women admitted to the Convertite? Were admissions voluntarily, coerced or forced? How did women adapt from their previous life to the convent and enclosure?

The Monastery of Santa Elisabetta, Florence

The Monastery of Santa Elisabetta, Florence (photo by Gillian Jack 2013)