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Positively medieval:
The University is one of the foremost places in the United States for medieval studies.
Here's why.
(print version)

Written by Jenny Adams

Assistant professor of history Rachel Fulton is trying to discern exactly what caused a marked shift in early Christians' views of Christ. In her sixth--floor office in Harper Tower, surrounded by medieval motifs, she searches for clues in the writings of 11th-- and 12th--century church theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Damian.

The shift, she explains, occurred around the turn of the first millennium. Before that time, pious Christians prayed to Christ as the all--powerful King of Heaven rather than as the man who had died a humiliating death. According to many early church authorities, the crucified Christ was an image not of reassurance but of judgment. In their view, when Christ came to judge the living and the dead at the end of time, only the damned would see him emblazoned with his wounds. Shortly after the millennium, however, this image began to change. By the mid--11th century, some Christians began to meditate on Christ at the moment of the Crucifixion. Once avoided as an image of damnation, the crucified Christ would become the central symbol of later medieval Europe.

"This image came into being at a particular point in European history, and it was refined and developed for centuries thereafter," says Fulton. "It survives in altered form today in the continuing search for the human, historical Jesus, and it was, I would argue, at the root of the development of modern methods of historical criticism."

Fulton, who joined Chicago's faculty in 1994, is one of many scholars across campus who study Europe's medieval era, the 1,000--year period from 400 to 1400 a.d. Though the era has been studied for centuries, U of C medievalists believe there are thousands of mysteries still to unravel, whose answers would shed light on today's culture. For example, what can we learn from images displayed in the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral? What audiences listened to medieval motet music and why? How did European society's conception of evil change over the course of several centuries?

Since 1994, five University departments have hired new faculty members with a medieval focus. A rejuvenated Medieval Studies Workshop brings together scholars from across disciplines to discuss medieval themes in their work. The library has increased its medieval holdings (see "Middle Pages," page 30). And this year, Chicago is hosting two medieval studies conferences. The first, "Genus Regale et Sacerdotale [A Royal and Priestly Race]: The Image of the Bishop around the Millennium," met in mid--October. The second, "Crafting History for the Present: Uses of the Past in the Middle Ages," takes place in February, bringing together scholars from Yale, UCLA, and Toronto--all schools with high--powered centers for medieval research--to discuss how people of the Middle Ages represented the ancient world.

John J. Contreni, a noted medievalist and professor of history at Purdue University, believes that Chicago has always been one of the foremost places in the United States to explore medieval times. "Scholars at many universities have contributed to the spectacular efflorescence of medieval studies in North America, but no university has maintained such a consistent record of high quality scholarship in so many different fields--philology, history, religion, philosophy, paleography, art history--for so many years." Anne Robertson, the Claire Dux Swift professor in music and humanities--whose book The Service--Books of the Royal Abbey of Saint--Denis: Images of Ritual and Music in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1991) won the 1995 John Nicholas Brown prize for the best first book in medieval studies--concurs: "We have a faculty here that I think is second to none."

That faculty has deep roots. Although medieval studies has never had its own department at the U of C, from the 1960s to the 1980s ground was broken in areas from Middle English lyrics to Latin literary traditions. Chicago medievalists included historians such as Karl Morrison and Robert J. Barlett, classicist W. Braxton Ross, English professors Theodore Silverstein and Winthrop Wetherbee, historian of Christianity Jaroslav Pelikan, PhD'46, and musicologist Howard Mayer Brown.

Many of the current senior faculty have continued to enrich Chicago's medieval tradition. Though Dean of the Humanities Division Janel Mueller now focuses on the Tudor era, she began her second book, The Native Tongue and the Word: Developments in English Prose Style, 1380--1580 (Chicago, 1984), with a consideration of "insights into the stylistic capacities of English" that occurred in the late 14th century. Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley professor of historical theology and the history of Christianity, is completing the fourth of a five--volume series, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism; the second and third volumes cover the growth and flowering of mysticism from the sixth through the 15th centuries. And Richard Helmholz, the Ruth Wyatt Rosenson professor of law, has written Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1974) and Canon Law and the Law of England (Hambledon, 1987).

Rather than aiming to produce the definitive edition of an original manuscript or a general survey of a historical movement, many U of C medievalists have refocused the lens of study on little--known figures or non--canonical works; others approach canonical authors or texts with atypical questions. For example, art historian Michael Camille has examined the art at the edges of medieval manuscripts and buildings, studying the meanings of marginalia and gargoyles. Camille's most recent book, Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (Chicago, 1998), focuses on one illuminated manuscript created for the 14th--century English nobleman Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, looking at the text, the margins, and the manuscript's milieu.

Camille's colleague, professor of art history Linda Seidel, also considers the nature of visual evidence. Seidel calls her Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus and the Cathedral of Autun (Chicago, 1999) "an attempt to recreate how a medieval pilgrim might have experienced the famous church--now admired almost exclusively for its sculpture--of St. Lazare in Autun." This fall, Seidel and three graduate students are curating an exhibit of medieval objects that opens at the Smart Museum in March. Funded by a Mellon Foundation grant to integrate the Smart's collection with undergraduate teaching, the exhibit features prayer books, crosses, altar pieces, manuscripts used for preaching, and ornate reliquaries and will coincide with Seidel's spring course, Pious Journeys.

Like Rachel Fulton, the other four recent recruits to Chicago's medieval corps are asking new questions about old topics. Take Lucy Pick, who joined the University as a John Nuveen instructor in the Divinity School in 1996. At work on a book about Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, a 13th--century Archbishop of Toledo, she finds herself confronting a paradox. Historians have tended to see de Rada as an anti--Semite, but Pick has discovered more quotidian records (personal notes, chronicles, and ledgers) that complicate this picture. Though his political tracts denounce Jews as heretics, his personal writings reveal his friendships with many Jewish community leaders. Says Pick: "Historians used to fall into two groups. Those who worked on documents, on social history, on numbers, on people without names; and those who worked on big figures--people everyone has heard of. But it's becoming more common to bring those two approaches together."

Meanwhile, in Gates--Blake, assistant professor of English J. Mark Miller, AM'87, PhD'93, is immersed in a very different type of project, a book on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. As Miller explains it, "The Canterbury Tales are almost obsessively concerned with sex; they are also quite searching investigations of some core problems in moral philosophy and theory of action--for example, the question of the roles that desire and reason play in constituting the will, or that of how self--deception and weakness of the will are possible.

"I'm thinking about how these concerns of Chaucer's coincide," he continues. "In doing so, I'm trying to suggest both what's philosophically interesting about sex and what's distinctively medieval about Chaucer's version of such an interest."

Miller's nearly completed Eros and Normativity in the Canterbury Tales is more philosophically inflected than much work in medieval studies, he says, and it relies on "a lot more close reading, and a lot less historical contextualization, than is currently fashionable." But Miller, who taught at Yale after finishing his graduate work at Chicago, sees this institution as particularly supportive of experimental intellectual projects: "There's a kind of open--mindedness about what is worth thinking about here among the faculty and students."

Classicist Michael Allen, who joined the faculty in 1996, is about to publish an edition of the Histories of the ninth--century historian Frechulf of Lisieux. As a philologist and cultural historian, Allen is fascinated by questions of transmission and influence. Shortly after he came to Chicago, one such question caught his attention. Studying a Parisian manuscript copy of the Chronicle, written by a ninth--century historian, Claudius of Turin, he noticed a discrepancy. In other copies of the Chronicle, Claudius had set the date of Christ's resurrection as March 23. In this manuscript, however, the date was set at March 25. Allen was curious: was the anomaly a scribal error? And if so, did it stop there--or was it replicated by other medieval scholars who might have used the Parisian manuscript as a reference? The answers had significant ramifications because Claudius was considered a heretic and his writings were banned. If the error had been picked up, it would indicate that, despite the ban, the Chronicle had been circulated. Sure enough, Allen discovered that March 25 was a scribal error and that it was used as the date of the Resurrection in Geoffrey of Babilon's Ennarationes in Matthaeum (Commentary on Matthew). Upon further comparison, Allen found a number of other verbal echoes and was able to argue that Geoffrey had indeed used Claudius' Chronicle very liberally.

Karen Duys, an assistant professor in Romance languages & literature who joined Chicago's medievalist ranks in 1997, also immerses herself in old texts. Duys is completing a book on the 13th--century French poet Gautier de Coinci. De Coinci is the first known poet to supervise the publication of a collection of his own poetry--Les Miracles de Nostre--Dame. "Gautier's is one of the most self--reflective voices I've witnessed in a book," says Duys. "Physical manuscripts can provide crucial information on poetic abstractions. Studying the ways he laid out his poems helps me understand how he conceived of the connections between them and how he thought of the book as a whole."

The surviving copies of Les Miracles are all in Europe, but Duys finds ways to use other manuscripts in her teaching. Last year, for example, she brought her class on The Romance of the Rose to Special Collections to view the library's facsimile copy of the Old French poem. "giving students the opportunity to experience a manuscript first hand," she says, "gives them a renewed sense of awe for what a complex thing of beauty, intellectual and artistic, a book is."

Along with the influx of young medievalists, the resurrected Medieval Studies Workshop, which entered its sixth year in October, has contributed fundamentally to the recent surge in medieval studies at Chicago. Its earlier incarnation, a departmental workshop that catered to historians, dissolved in the early 1990s, leaving a big hole for scholarly exchange outside the classroom. Then in autumn 1994, a reconstituted workshop was founded by Sean Gilsdorf, a graduate student in history whose research focuses on political ritual in the early Middle Ages, and English professor Christina von Nolcken, who studies a 14th-- and 15th--century English heretical movement called Lollardy.

Gilsdorf and von Nolcken--who also chairs the undergraduate program in medieval studies, which graduates a half dozen or so students each spring--have worked hard to include all medievalists on campus, creating arguably the most interdisciplinary workshop on a very interdisciplinary campus. Its membership, currently around 70, has represented at least ten departments--from art history to Slavic languages--in the Social Sciences and Humanities Divisions, as well as the Divinity and Law Schools.

Like all of the University's 50--some graduate workshops, each session of the Medieval Studies Workshop, held on alternate Wednesdays throughout the quarter, features a speaker, whether a graduate student or faculty member from the U of C or another university. Past speakers have included Loyola University Chicago's Barbara Herstein Rosenwein, AB'66, AM'68, PhD'74, discussing the sixth--century bishop Gregory of Tours; Constance Brittain Bouchard, AM'73, PhD'76, who teaches at the University of Akron, on 12th--century views of men and women; renowned German historian Johannes Fried, on oral tradition and historical knowledge in 10th--century Germany; and the foremost scholar of the Lollard rebellion, Anne Hudson from Oxford. This past year, topics ranged from Anglo--Saxon penitential texts to chess culture in the late Middle Ages.

As important as the speakers are the questions. In its first year, for example, the workshop hosted a University of Illinois at Chicago English professor who gave a paper on Icelandic sagas. When the talk ended, the floor opened for questions. Thirty minutes later, the lecturer found himself with not only several new references and suggestions for refinement, but also some challenges to his main argument. Craig Wright, a medieval musicologist from Yale, turned one comment--a comparative--literature grad student's reference to a short poem by Jean de Condé--into a footnote when he published parts of his talk in a book on cathedral music and mazes. U of C professor Paolo Cherchi and professor emeritus Peter Dembowski (both from Romance languages & literature) have had many a friendly sparring about topics as far apart as Augustine's Confessions and Boccaccio's Decameron.

The Medieval Studies Workshop has since led to a spin--off group of medievalists who now form the Late Antiquity and Byzantium Workshop. Started by professor of art history Robert S. Nelson--currently on a year--long research fellowship at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles--the workshop focuses on the medieval era of the Eastern Roman Empire (from about 324 a.d. to 1453 a.d.). About 20 faculty and students attend those biweekly sessions.

Nicole Lassahn, who is completing a dissertation on medieval dream poetry and who was a student coordinator for the workshop from 1997 to 1999, describes the group as a home department: "Most of my colleagues in comparative literature study modern authors. The workshop is where I felt at home and comfortable. Without it, I'm not sure that I would have continued at Chicago."

Robin O'Sullivan, a Divinity School graduate student who studies the literature of medieval mystics, is this year's workshop student coordinator, along with Matt Shoaf, AM'96, a graduate student in art history who studies medieval Italian images of virtue and vice. A key reason she came to the University after earning her master's at Harvard, she says, was the presence of Chicago's "vibrant medieval community."

On a bright October afternoon, as sun presses through the high windows of Swift Hall, Chicago's medieval community has temporarily expanded to include 34 scholars from Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, and the United States, who have gathered for a three--day conference, Genus Regale et Sacerdotale, on the changing roles and significance of bishops at the turn of the first millennium.

At the conference, Jeffrey Bowman, an assistant professor of history at Kenyon College, presents "Bridges, Sanctity, and Power," a paper that tells the story of a red--letter day in 1035. On that day, Bishop Ermengol of Urgell, a diocese in the Pyrenees, died suddenly when he fell from a bridge. The accident is notable: an honored figure in the community, Ermengol had been helping to build the bridge with his own hands. The accident is also remarkable because, other than the account of the bishop's skull--crushing fall in one vitae, it merits no other mentions in the charters, contracts, or accounts of the bridge's construction. Why, then, wonders Bowman, did that one biographer include the story? How might the image of the bishop as a builder of physical bridges correspond to his spiritual role as a mediator between the earthly and the divine?

Conference participant after conference participant responded with observations about the changing dual nature of the bishop's office. In early Christian times, the bishop's role had been both administrative and spiritual. But with the increasing importance of the bishop in medieval society, these two roles were harder to balance: he was to be a model of spirituality, holiness, and virtue--and a key political leader. The mix of ecclesiastical and secular powers ensured that the right to appoint a man to the office of bishop fueled a huge 11th--century battle, known as the Investiture Controversy, between secular and ecclesiastical powers. The resulting compromise--that bishops and abbots should be invested by the church but pay homage to the king--underlies much of Western history since.

No wonder that the medievalists, gathered in a room whose architecture can be traced to the Middle Ages, find the topics they study, like the methods they use, to be the stuff of today.

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