Department of History

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Tom Devaney '11

Tom Devaney completed his PhD in history at Brown University in 2011, specializing in the history of medieval and early modern Europe. He is currently working as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rochester, and he has previously taught at the University of Indiana South-Bend, and the University of Puget Sound.

Dr. Tom DevaneyTom Devaney is currently working as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rochester, and he has previously taught at the University of Indiana South-Bend, and the University of Puget Sound. His articles have appeared in prestigious medieval studies journals including Viator and Speculum, and his first book, Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture 1460­–1492was published with the University of Pennsylvania Press in the spring of 2015. This year, he will be spending his sabbatical at the Collegium for Advanced Studies in Helsinki. Professor Devaney graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his teaching and research for the history department.

Your book, Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture 1460–1492 just came out with the University of Pennsylvania Press this past spring. How similar is the book to the dissertation that you submitted in the history department in 2011?

I originally intended the dissertation to be a comparison of the role of public spectacle in Castile, which bordered Muslim-ruled Granada, and Cyprus, where a small Latin Christian elite ruled a mostly Greek Orthodox population. I expected to find similar patterns in how pageantry worked in Mediterranean frontier settings by acting as a forum in which people could publicly express ideas about other religious groups. And I did find congruities between these two societies. As the project progressed, however, it became clear that the story I was telling was really about Castile in the last decades of the fifteenth century. In part, this was a question of available sources, but more significant was that this period saw rapid shifts in religious identities and attitudes toward members of other groups. So it was both a more dynamic and better-documented moment in time. I decided to leave the Cypriot material in the dissertation, but know that the book would have to have a more cohesive topic. The dissertation was also too long to be attractive to publishers. So I excised the Cyprus chapter, turning it into a standalone article, while also shortening the rest. Much of the dissertation reflected my own process of figuring out the topic. While it was useful to have done that writing, getting rid of it later made for a better, more streamlined book.

How did you go about finding a publisher for your book, and what suggestions would you have for current and recent graduates who are thinking about or beginning the process of converting their dissertations into book manuscripts? 

For me, the process was straightforward. Members of my dissertation committee had suggested some possibilities, and two of them had had positive experiences with Penn Press in the past. Since Penn is also a major publisher in my subfield, it seemed the best choice. After an initial email exchange with the editor, I submitted a book proposal and sample chapter. This was approved and the project went forward. For those beginning this process with their first book, I’d suggest spending a lot of time on the proposal. This is an opportunity to think about what your book is going to be about – the core argument, how it fits in the field, and the intended audience—and what you will need to do to get there. One aspect of this is making the book appealing for as wide an audience as possible. Dissertations are typically aimed at a narrow group of specialists, and the book often needs both to provide more background information and less explicit discussion of the historiography.

What was it like to work with the University of Pennsylvania Press? 

It was a pleasure. The process of book production involves a great many decisions and I’m glad to say that the editors and staff at Penn Press managed to actively solicit my input while also sharing their extensive experience of what works. One of the biggest challenges was settling on a title. This is, of course, a critical aspect of a book’s presentation and a good title needs to convey the essential qualities of the book. The editorial board rejected by first effort at a title, as it encapsulated only a part of what the book was about. My editor and I then went back and forth for months, suggesting and rejecting possibilities until we found something that worked for both of us. In terms of other issues, such as footnotes or endnotes, I generally went with editorial recommendations on the assumption that they know a good deal about what has been successful. So, for instance, they strongly advised endnotes. As scholars, we often want the citations to be right there on the page. But perhaps a book is more widely appealing if it doesn’t look too “academic” and so I agreed with this and other suggestions. Throughout the process, it was clear that the priority on all sides was to make this the best book possible.

Now that you're done with your first book, what's the next project that you have planned?

I have several projects ongoing right now. I’ve begun research for an article that will carry the themes of my first book forward in time, looking at how the social functions of spectacle evolved in early sixteenth-century Spanish possessions in North Africa. I’m also very interested in fifteenth century poems in which conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity, also known as “New” Christians or Marranos) accused each other of sexual deviancy and of still being Jews in their hearts. This seems a self-defeating approach and my goal for this project will be a better understanding of the personal and social dislocations caused both by conversion itself and by the “Old” Christian rejection of converts. I’m planning a full-length study of the prominent fifteenth-century Castilian nobleman Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, whose career, I will argue, can give us a great deal of insight into the turbulent cultural and political transformations of the period. Finally, I’m working on a book examining the cognitive and social experience of romerías, or pilgrimages to local shrines, in early modern Spain. These events combined religious (sermons, processions) and festive (banquets, music, dancing) elements, and I want to see how they contributed to the formation of communal identities. I’m currently at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany on a short-term research grant, and will be spending the coming year on sabbatical at the Collegium for Advanced Studies in Helsinki, where I hope to move forward on all these projects.