Medieval Studies

Medieval manuscript

The secondary field in Medieval Studies examines the Middle Ages from many different angles and through the eyes of many different disciplines, drawing on the wealth of medieval teaching and scholarship at Harvard.

Administrative Director: Sean Gilsdorf

Gateway Courses

Spring 2022

GENED 1088: The Crusades and the Making of East and West
Dimiter Angelov

The course explores the birth of the civilizational categories of East and West during the era of the Crusades, one of the most significant and deeply symbolic events in human history. A series of wars in the Middle Ages fought between Latin Christians and the perceived enemies of Christendom, the Crusades saw the first experiments of European colonization, the rise of Western commercial capitalism, and the emergence of new cultural identities and boundaries across Europe and the Mediterranean.  Students will learn about the origins of the Crusades, the most important expeditions, and the long-term consequences. This course is about the Crusades both in history and in memory, about communities in war and peace, and about stories and memories that have endured to the present day. 

GENED 1160: Harvard Gets Medieval
Dan Smail

Starting in the late nineteenth century, Harvard got medieval. Through direct purchase and through the collecting activity of numerous alumnae/i, we began collecting all sorts of texts and artifacts generated by the medieval world of Arabic, Greek, and Latin civilizations. The things that arrived in Harvard’s collections came in many forms, ranging from great architectural monuments and motifs to little stuff such as belt buckles, pilgrims’ flasks, and fragments of pottery.

Why did we want medieval stuff? And what have we since learned about the world from which it came? This is a course about objects and their meaning, focusing on the objects in Harvard’s collections that derive from western Eurasia and North Africa between the fall of the Roman Empire to the eve of contact with the New World. The five modules in the course begin by introducing you to five objects—things, images, texts—in Harvard’s collections. Each of these objects lies on the edges of canonical knowledge and therefore pose mysteries and invite questions. Our own exploration starts with the context of the object’s acquisition and briefly explores what was happening in the world at the moment of its arrival. What did the acquisition of the medieval mean a hundred years ago? From there, we plunge into the past to explore the objects in their own context, working to grasp technologies, economies, social relations, and beliefs. Among other topics, we explore how medieval people imagined saints, miracles and witchcraft, as well as hell and other nasty regions of the afterworld. We explore trade networks and power structures and beliefs about others. We see how medieval peoples mapped visions of their own world, and work our way into the deep inner structures of their cognition, such as their understandings of time and calendar. Starting from the particular and moving to the general, lectures and assignments seek to frame the cultural context of each object and model how students can develop the skills they need to unpack and explain the unfamiliar. A major course-long assignment will invite students to make their own discoveries in Harvard’s collections and elsewhere and to curate their own virtual gallery of objects that engages with the medieval world. The semester ends with a concrete proposal to the museum regarding areas of the collection that we need to build up to promote the concerns and issues of our own day. 

HAA 42P: Architecture through the Ages: Notre-Dame-de-Paris
Jeffrey Hamburger

The development of European architecture through the cathedral’s construction, transformation, and restoration in dialogue with its changing urban context, as well as debates over its reconstruction following the fire of 2019.

MEDVLSTD 119: Constitutional and Legal History of Medieval Continental Europe
Charles Donohue

A survey of continental European constitutional and legal history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the "Rise of absolutism'' at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Focuses on the main expressions of European legal culture over this long period of time. In each period an effort is made to relate the types of law produced to social, political, and religious history.