Erin Russell: Making French and History Work Together in Research

Erin Russell

History and French major Erin Russell is using her interest in history to rediscover the traditions of her hometown of St. Louis.

The senior said she decided to study history in college when she was 10 years old.

“I feel really connected to people in the past when I’m reading,” she said. “History is really important because you can interpret the past in so many different ways. There’s not only one way to interpret it even though a lot of people do that without thinking twice about it.”

She is currently doing thesis research with Associate Professor of History Adriene Lentz-Smith on the Veiled Prophet, an organization and annual event in St. Louis that began in 1878. The event features a parade and debutante ball in which one debutante is crowned the prophet’s queen. The event was originally sponsored by businessmen who wanted to promote the city of St. Louis, and now raises money for local charities.

“It’s been in St. Louis for almost 150 years and it used to be a really big deal,” she said. “The debutantes would be local celebrities and it would be televised.”

Although Russell said the Veiled Prophet was historically an integral component of the St. Louis social scene, it has died out a little in popularity. In recent years, Russell said the tradition has also become more controversial, especially with regards to race. The ball was segregated until the 1970s, when it became the focus of several civil rights protests and a protester unmasked the normally anonymous prophet.

“I have a friend actually who participated in the ball last year,” Russell said. “Her parents are immigrants from Africa. Forty years ago she wouldn’t have been able to participate.”

Russell also has connected her two academic interests very well.  Although she originally intended to minor in French, she said she could not go a semester without taking a French class.

Her French language skills were useful during her history capstone course about medieval communities, taught by Mary Jane Morrow. In that class, Russell researched French tales—fabliaux—that served as the basis for The Canterbury Tales. Her French proficiency allowed her to take her studies to a greater depth, since the original text and much of the scholarship about the stories are in French.

“They're essentially short bawdy tales,” she said. “Most of them are unattributed, but I focused on 8 that were written by a trouvère named Jean Bodel and used his tales to infer to which type of audience he performed.”

Russell is also president of Duke’s history union and plays the flute in the marching band. For the past few summers she has worked at Faust Park in St. Louis county, giving tours of historic homes and teaching adults and children about local history. She said she enjoys cataloging and working with the park’s acquisitions, which are donations used to furnish the historic homes in the park, and working with the education programs.

“Some [education programs] teach kids what their tasks would have been if they grew up on a farm in Missouri in the early 19th century (when the second governor of Missouri lived on the park's property),” Russell said. “It's really fun to see how the kids dive into the tasks and engage with history in this special way.”