October 10, 2019

Global Medieval Studies Program Reorients the World, Challenges Historical Stereotypes

Georgetown’s Global Medieval Studies (GMS) program connects students and faculty to rich traditions and diverse perspectives, cultivating an astute global literacy and a deeper understanding of our world today.

Detail from the Catalan Atlas showing the Western Sahara, with mountains at the top and the River Niger at the bottom.
Detail from the Catalan Atlas showing the Western Sahara, with mountains at the top and the River Niger at the bottom.

The program, which offers a major and minor in global medieval studies, was renamed last spring, adding the term “Global” to reflect the broad scope of the program. 

GMS Director Sarah McNamer says this change was in part symbolic, meant to reflect the pre-existing trends of the program that has long encapsulated many diverse traditions and geographies. 

“But it also signals a fresh start and a new direction,” McNamer said. “The field in general is undergoing a ‘global turn’–and Georgetown is among the first universities to offer degree programs that are more expansive in scope and aim. The breadth and depth of faculty expertise at Georgetown make this possible.”

Thinking Beyond Europe

To challenge traditional beliefs that medieval studies only focuses on European history, students in the program are encouraged to decenter the Middle Ages in the region. Students are now required to take at least one course focusing on an area of the world outside Europe, such as “Introduction to the Islamic World” or “Precolumbian Art and Architecture.” McNamer believes decentering Europe is a valuable exercise for the imagination, in the same way that decentering the present can be.

“I think it’s a healthy corrective to being consumed with the present or even the future, because there’s much of value we can appreciate from the past,” she says.

Wini Dandu (B’19), a graduate of the minor, said the GMS program met its key aim of empowering its students to be culturally literate global citizens. 

“Through my classes at Georgetown, I have had the opportunity to analyze Viking sacrifices, notions of romantic love in medieval Japan and Persia, and the lais of Marie de France,” says Dandu. “My medieval studies classes were the most intellectually challenging and rewarding classes I took at Georgetown.”

Rachel Singer (C'22) in front of Bath Abbey, a Gothic church she visited in England.
Rachel Singer (C'22) in front of Bath Abbey, a Gothic church she visited in England.

In the Field

The Global Medieval Studies Travel Award was designated to enhance the study of the global Middle Ages through experiential learning opportunities, fieldwork, and research on places and artifacts from the period 500-1500 C.E., either in situ or in archival, library, or museum collections. Rachel Singer (C’22), a recipient of this award, used the grant to study intensive Latin in the United Kingdom last summer. 

“It is next to impossible to study the Middle Ages without reading Latin, because formal texts in vernacular languages did not become acceptable until the thirteenth century,” Singer says. “Wales, which is the area I focus on, also kept using Latin for longer than most of its neighbors, which made it especially vital that I learn how to read it.” 

“It motivates and excites students to actually go to these sites where the Middle Ages can still be seen,” McNamer says. “There’s just nothing like going to see the ruins and ancient culture.” 

Challenging Stereotypes

Dandu also received a travel grant last summer to spend two weeks in India studying medieval temples, which challenged her preconceptions of what this period was actually like. 

“One of the most common stereotypes we have about the medieval period is that it was barbaric, uninteresting, and/or regressive,” she says. “However, the magnificent temples I visited were architectural marvels and represented very complex philosophical and religious belief.”

Dandu said the experience allowed her to understand her own heritage in an entirely new way. 

“As a kid, I always wondered why the medieval temples we visited in India during the summer were so ornate and dazzling. Was it simply an artistic choice or something deeper?” she says. “I learned so much about my faith and heritage, and it really proved that the medieval age is really worth learning more about.” 

Present-day Implications

Singer’s studies have also informed her understanding of current global trends. Particularly given the global rise in racially-motivated hate crimes and violence, Singer believes the framework GMS provides is more vital than ever. 

“The Global Medieval Studies program is a source of correct and refined knowledge about the Middle Ages, which can be used to combat white supremacist ideas about the past having been ‘whiter’ or ‘purer’ than the present and educate the public about what our shared past can really teach us about who we are and where we came from,” Singer says.

McNamer agreed on the importance of demonstrating that the Middle Ages were not as simple or univocal as many may think.

“To show that there was a vibrant and multicultural Middle Ages is important now so that medieval doesn’t become a code word for something that it never was to begin with,” she said. “So that’s one of the reasons I think it can be helpful politically right now, so we can have a vision of history that is both more rich and true.”

The Global Medieval Studies program will host an event with Dick Davis entitled “Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women” on Thursday, October 24, from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in Riggs Library.

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