The Medieval Review 12.06.22

In memoriam: Shona Kelly Wray.

Reviewed by:

Roisin Cossar
The University of Manitoba; Deborah Loeb Brice fellow, Villa I Tatti, 2011-12

Shona Kelly Wray was an Editor of TMR from 2008 until her unexpected death this past May. As an Editor, Shona edited and formatted reviews for publication and participated in editorial decision-making, tasks she performed with professionalism, insight, grace, humor, and enthusiasm. We at TMR miss her tremendously, and we are glad to be able to honor her memory with the following.

In memoriam: Shona Kelly Wray

Shona Kelly Wray's career, cut tragically short by her untimely death in May, was characterized by her great compassion both for her historical subjects and her friends, family, and colleagues. Shona, a historian of fourteenth-century Bologna who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm while on a fellowship at the Villa I Tatti in Florence, was a warm, generous, engaged scholar, wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend. Throughout her career, Shona created connections with a broad network of colleagues. In the days following her death, the outpouring of grief from across the academic community, in North America, Britain, and Europe, made clear that even during her relatively short life she had made a significant and lasting impact on several fields, including the history of women, medicine, law, the Mediterranean, and the Italian city. The Medieval Review, which she helped sustain as a space for scholarly exchange through her work as an editor, seems a particularly apt place to publish this appreciation of her life and work.

Like many others who will read this, I worked closely with Shona for several years and mourn her loss deeply. In my case, we organized conference sessions together, co-wrote an essay on testaments in a volume on medieval primary sources (, and during this year, while we were both fellows at I Tatti, had begun a joint archival project tracking a family of jurists across fourteenth- century Bologna and Venice. Like so many of you, I also miss her friendship terribly and wonder what the future will be like without her encouragement and insights. But in the midst of this sadness, Shona's scholarly legacy lives on and her ideas can continue to develop through the work of her friends and colleagues. In this brief essay, I summarize some of the main points of Shona's scholarship both to reflect on the impact of her work and suggest how it might carry forward in the future.

As an archival historian, Shona combined exceptionally strong Latin and paleography skills with a commitment to the importance of historical context. Primary source evidence was always the point of departure in her scholarship. As she often said, "I always start with the documents." She had taken auto mechanics classes in high school in California, learning to take engines apart and put them back together, and she treated archival documents in the same way, closely examining their constituent parts until she was sure she knew exactly how they had been put together and worked. Her ability to get to the bottom of her sources, her commitment to hard work, and her great organizational abilities served her well throughout her research.

Shona began her scholarly career as a student of medieval philosophy and Latin at the University of California at Davis, in the early 1980s. Her student experiences in Italy in 1983 and again in 1986, when she worked with scholars like Paolo Sambin at Padua and Umberto Eco at Bologna, gave her a life-long commitment to Italy and its archives. When she returned to the US in the late 1980s and began a graduate degree in History at the University of Colorado, she had already decided to study medieval history and to use Bologna as her research base. With her advisor Steven Epstein, then at Colorado, she formulated a thesis on the social consequences of plague as seen through testaments, and she discovered a database program, Kleio ( which had been created by a historian. Although she once described the learning curve for using the database as "steep," she saw its value for her work with large numbers of documents, and used it to write both her dissertation and her 2009 book, Communities and Crisis: Bologna during the Black Death (Brill).

Kleio allowed Shona to analyze many aspects of the testamentary data she gathered from the Libri Memoriali in Bologna. The Memoriali, parchment registers of notarial acts for transactions above 20 lire, date from 1265 and run through the fourteenth century. Using testamentary evidence she drew from two periods, the late 1330s and 1347-48, Shona constructed an argument about responses to the onset of plague in Bologna during 1348 that countered conventional notions of responses to epidemics. That is, she argued that Bolognese citizens did not respond to the plague by abandoning their communities and their social obligations, but rather, they fulfilled their responsibilities to each other and expected that social ties would remain strong even during the worst moments of the epidemic. I always found this argument compelling, especially given the amount of evidence that she had pulled together to bolster it, but on reflection I also think it mirrors Shona's own humane perspective on the world. Shona was always particularly empathic to those around her, and when she turned her attention to her historical subjects she saw them as complete human beings with rich emotional lives and the ability to support one another in challenging times. This sense of kinship with the people of the past, coupled with her close reading of the source material, gave her arguments a particularly strong foundation.

Shona's sense of responsibility to the people of the distant past is evident in all of her publications. In her influential article, "Boccaccio and the Doctors: Medicine and Compassion in the Face of the Plague," Shona argued that the famous introduction to Boccaccio's Decameron was not simply a reporting of the events of the plague but was instead a critical commentary on plague tractates or consilia written by physicians in the mid-fourteenth century. [1] At the same time, she argued, testamentary evidence reveals that Boccaccio's commentary about social behaviour during the Black Death did not reflect how people actually behaved in Bologna (and presumably elsewhere). Instead, doctors and other professionals, including notaries, remained in Bologna during the worst weeks of the epidemic, doing their jobs and caring for the sick and dying. Her goal in the essay was to "relieve doctors of charges of medical ineptitude" while emphasizing the value of the notarial evidence for understanding daily life.

It's clear from these brief summaries that Shona's work encompassed several themes in the social history of the later Middle Ages. Her early publications demonstrate an interest in the history of medicine, and in prosopography as a method of historical analysis. She was also interested in Mediterranean history, and in a book co-edited with Jutta Sperling in 2010 titled Across the Religious Divide: Women, Property, and Law in the Wider Mediterranean (ca. 1300-1800), she made the case for defining the Mediterranean as broadly as possible. As she wrote to me a couple of years ago about the growing field of Mediterranean studies, she believed the area needs representation from both east and west, and historians of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities, since "Italy, Spain, and southern France do not the Mediterranean make." (Being Shona, she tempered that implicit criticism by noting that she still had "a lot" to learn about the field.)

Every aspect of Shona's work, from the beginning of her career, was underpinned by a strong interest in the work of notaries and in notarial culture. She defined that concept in a 2009 article in the Journal of Social History as "the legal and administrative structure involving notaries and their written acts that shaped and facilitated the documentation of the transactions of daily life." [2] In that article, she studied extra-judicial peace settlements crafted by notaries for individuals of several social ranks. Her analysis of those records supported her argument that notarial culture permeated medieval life at all levels. During this year at I Tatti she would often write me notes when she found the testament of a second-hand clothes dealer, or a female domestic servant, or another poor or apparently marginal figure in Bologna who had had recourse to a notary to write a will or draw up a dowry agreement.

Shona was also interested in the connection between notarial culture and notions of literacy and orality in the fourteenth century. In a paper given at the Renaissance Society of America meeting in 2007 titled "The Public Voice and the Written Word within the Notarial Culture of Late Medieval Bologna," she explained first how notaries and their records created a "paper trail" in the archives. The first pages of this paper provide an exceptionally clear description of notaries' work practices, and should be essential reading for anyone setting out to work in pre-modern notarial archives for the first time. She then argued that notaries were also closely linked to oral culture, reminding her listeners that "the written word was embedded in orality and that the spoken word was implicated in the literate domain of writing." This paper brings a new dimension to studies of the notariate and notarial culture, forcing us to consider not only the written records prepared by notaries, but also the notary as a public voice and figure in the community.

Her interest in the notariate as a social group extended more recently to a focus on the notary's household. The last paper she gave, at a conference in Belgium just a few days before her death, was titled "Notarial Families and Households in Trecento Bologna." In that paper, she examined the testaments of notaries, as well as those of their wives, widows, and daughters, to argue for the heterogeneity of the notarial "class" and the "socially flexible nature of the profession" in mid-fourteenth century Bologna. She wrote, "Scholarship tends to view the notariate as a single occupation, with common training and professional techniques. But this uniformity fades when we examine the private lives: at the social level the notariate was varied and divided." [3]

Shona's most recent research on notarial households was part of her broader interest in rethinking traditional institutional narratives about medieval professions by investigating the connection between the professional sphere and the family and household in the later Middle Ages. Her I Tatti fellowship project this year comprised a study of the families of professors at the University of Bologna during the fourteenth century through an investigation of notarial records about their worlds. She was particularly interested in locating the women in these families, not just within domestic space, but also in the wider community. She planned a book on faculty families, possibly organized into case studies dealing with families from each of the faculties of the university. This plan had already borne fruit, as she had completed an essay on the wives of law faculty members in Bologna that should appear in print during 2012. She was also in the early stages of planning an essay drawing together the experiences of women married to professors in law, medicine, notarial arts, grammar, philosophy, and logic. This essay was to examine not only the women's wealth, through their testaments and inventories of their husbands' estates, but also their influence over their husbands' work, as seen in the example of the wife of the legal scholar Giovanni d'Andrea, whom Giovanni credited with giving him useful advice when he was writing.

In her research and her daily life, Shona was particularly good at connecting people. She delighted in fleshing out the biographies of her historical subjects--as she and I searched for members of the Boattieri family of Bologna, we traveled to Venice together in March this year, where she was thrilled when we managed to uncover more information about Boattieri kinship networks in the Archivio di Stato. And outside her research, Shona similarly sought to create networks and learn as much about people as she could. Planning conference sessions with her was refreshing and challenging, since she used those events as excuses to get to know new people. She joined a wide variety of scholarly associations (and was forever reminding me to join them, too) and attended conferences whenever she could. Her love of the dances at Kalamazoo and Leeds was well known, and she used to talk about all the people, from students to major scholars, she had coaxed onto the dance floor at those events. She was continually sending me emails about graduate students and junior scholars she had met and wanted to help. In 2006 she persuaded me to help organize, along with Patricia Skinner, several sessions at Leeds on the topic of the Medieval Will, at which she was instrumental in bringing together scholars from across Europe, including Hungary and Croatia. At I Tatti this year, she sought common ground with everyone, and took delight in conversations on many subjects around the Villa's famous lunch table. Many people have talked about hearing her laugh during those meals, and many of us know that she had a sometimes-wicked sense of humour. One day she came up to me after a particularly delicious lunch and told me another fellow had made her burst out laughing with his observation of the effect of I Tatti on its fellows, who had all arrived with very specific goals which they inevitably found difficult to realize as they settled into reading their way through the library, walking in the gardens, and sharing meals. With a grin she repeated his words: "I Tatti: Lose your waistline and your focus!"

Shona's love of people and the world around her, her diligent approach to her work, her insights, and her compassion made her an exceptional friend and colleague. We can take many lessons from her work and her life, but one in particular stands out for me: seeking connections with others in our scholarly communities, as she did so many times over her life, yields great rewards for our scholarship and our teaching, but it also gives us a satisfying sense of living our lives as fully as we can. Shona deserved to live and work for another fifty years, but in the time she had she made the most of every opportunity to celebrate the richness of the way of life she had chosen.

For memories from those who knew Shona, as a scholar, family member, and friend, see


1. "Boccaccio and the Doctors: Medicine and Compassion in the Face of Plague," Journal of Medieval History 30 (2004): 301-322.

2. "Instruments of Concord: Making Peace and Settling Disputes through a Notary in the City and Contado of Late Medieval Bologna," Journal of Social History 42 (2009): 733-760.

3. "Notarial Families and Households in Trecento Bologna," at Archival Scribes in the Medieval West: Training, Careers, Connections, Namur, Belgium, 3 May, 2012. Shona's paper will appear in the published proceedings of the conference.

Copyright (c) 2012 Roisin Cossar

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