Tag Archives: thesis

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.