UHV faculty member wins award for medieval research article

Esther Cuenca has pondered and pored for several years over documents to learn more about town clerks and the authors of written local customs in medieval English towns. Her work recently paid off with an award from the Medieval Academy of America.

Esther Cuenca

Cuenca, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria, recently was awarded the 2021 Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize, which recognizes an outstanding first published article in the field of medieval studies. Cuenca, who wrote the academic essay “Town clerks and the authorship of custumals in medieval England,” was one of two prize recipients who each received $500.

“This award for my work feels great and is encouraging,” Cuenca said. “I am preparing my book manuscript, and this recognition is encouraging as far as my plans to get a full manuscript completed down the line.”

The Medieval Academy of America is the largest U.S. organization promoting excellence in the field of medieval studies. The committee awarded Cuenca and the other prize winner because their “submissions would enrich our understanding of late medieval urban history and early medieval ecologies,” according to the organization’s website. The winners officially will be announced during the academy’s annual meeting, which will take place virtually in April.

Beverly Tomek

“We are delighted to hear that Dr. Cuenca has received this prestigious award in her field of expertise,” said Beverly Tomek, associate provost for curriculum and student success. “At UHV, our faculty members are an example of academic excellence to our students and our UHV community.”

Cuenca, who has worked at UHV since August 2019, specializes in the history of medieval and early modern Britain. Her research interests include the history of medieval Britain, law, urbanization and the Middle Ages in popular culture. Courses she has taught include “Medieval Plagues,” “Saints, Wives and Witches” and “Medieval Digital History.”

The research topic was first brought up in 2014, and Cuenca completed her first draft in 2015. She wrote a chapter about town clerks and medieval English documents, known as custumals, for her dissertation in 2017 after she completed a fellowship in England. After the essay was peer-reviewed, it was published in May 2019 in the Urban History academic journal.

The essay examines who the men were who created the custumals, or collections of written customs in English towns. While some clerks in English towns were well known, many custumals were written anonymously. Cuenca analyzed the oaths and known administrative practices to find out more about the unnamed clerks who played a critical role in shaping customary law for future generations of administrators.

“In history, the further back we go, the less documentation we have about communities,” Cuenca said. “In the Middle Ages, the literacy rates were not very high because a person had to be a part of the church to go to university. We also tend to have less information on the smaller towns. Sometimes, clerks started out in the church and later switched out to live in small towns and write these custumals. How these anonymous writers worked and got educated remains a big mystery to us, but these clerks helped create the entire corpus of urban law that we have for medieval towns.”

To read Cuenca’s essay, go to

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.

Amber Aldaco