Harvard Gets Medieval (Gen Ed 1160)





How did our world come to be suffused with medieval images and motifs, and what do we learn about the past and ourselves as we begin to explore the fascinating time on the other side of the stereotypes?


Aesthetics & Culture icon with text

Daniel Lord 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. 

Register for Gen Ed 1160