YSU Professor to research writing of merchants

YOUNGSTOWN -- A Youngstown State University assistant professor of history leaves for Italy next week to further her research on deciphering and interpreting 500-year-old writings of merchants who traveled the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.
Eleanor Congdon received two $4,000 scholarships to help pay for the trip. She arrives Tuesday in Venice and returns to Youngstown about July 10. She also will visit Florence.
She received a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society. It's believed to be the first time a YSU faculty member won a grant from the society founded in 1745 by Benjamin Franklin.
Congdon also received a fellowship from the Dr. M. Aylwin Cotton Foundation in the Channel Islands, a foundation dedicated to further the study of archaeology, architecture, history, language and art of the Mediterranean area.
How her interest formed
Congdon, daughter of a college professor father and a mother with a doctorate in art history, earned a bachelor of arts degree from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1988. A year later, she enrolled in the history graduate program at the University of Minnesota, where she first came across medieval merchant letters.
She was immediately hooked by the complexity of the handwritten letters.
"It's almost an international language," combining parts of Spanish, French, Portuguese, Latin, Greek and Arabic, she said. "There is no dictionary. There is no grammar book. Venetian is a dialect that is long gone."
The research, which Congdon continued while earning a doctorate at Cambridge University in England, involves interpreting and translating the letters and discovering what they reveal about the history of the times.
"It's like playing Sherlock Holmes," she said.
After four years as the director of the Medieval Studies Program at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, Congdon came to YSU three years ago and has focused her research on the writings of two specific Venetian merchants: Marco Bembo and Ambrogio Malipero.
"I could spend 24 hours a day working with these documents and never feel the passage of time," she said. "There's so much wonderful stuff there."
She is studying copies of more than 300 letters written between 1476 and 1486 by Bembo, an international merchant who operated in the Aegean Sea during a time of war between Christian Venetians and Muslim Turks.
The letters were sent to Bembo's agents and are contained in a ledger called a "copy-letter," Congdon said.
The trip to Italy will allow Congdon to read official government records about what Venetians and Turks did during these years that might have affected Bembo's activities.
She said the grants, while quite large for someone working in medieval history, will not cover all of the costs of the trips.
"This is the very start of this project," she said. "It will take several years to complete."
Congdon wants to finish a book on Venetian merchants in the western Mediterranean, and she has plans to possibly edit a book on plants in the Middle Ages.

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