Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

What does the word “medieval” really mean?

At Yale, the new Medieval Studies Certificate Program helps interested undergraduates explore what “medieval” means in its many global contexts. Although the Middle Ages can conjure images of knights, nobles, peasants and feudalism, this reflexive conception of the period can be myopic. During the Middle Ages — a time lasting roughly a thousand years between the 5th and 15th centuries — people around the globe lived in vastly different social and aesthetic worlds. Yale’s new Medieval Studies Certificate Program provides students with a way to organize their study of the global Middle Ages. 

Yale’s Medieval Studies Program, which is expanding into Yale College with its new undergraduate certificate, brings together approximately 40 faculty members with a range of academic expertise — including classics, East Asian languages and literatures, philosophy and religious studies — to teach students about the varied cultures of the period. According to its website, Yale’s program is one of the largest assemblies of specialized medievalists in the United States. Though faculty began planning for the certificate program during the 2019-20 school year, it only became available to students this fall.

“Medieval studies has been a very long-running graduate program that has sought to bring together resources from across the University to study the Middle Ages,” Emily Thornbury, associate professor of English and chair of Medieval Studies, told the News. “The goal of the new undergraduate certificate is to help make a lot of Yale’s resources for the Middle Ages available to undergraduates as well. … We hope that this certificate will allow undergraduates with a wide variety of interests to organize their experiences and discover what they can learn about the Middle Ages during their time here.” 

To complete the certificate, students must take five courses spanning at least two geographical “zones” and at least two academic disciplines. Each semester, the program releases a list of courses, each of which is assigned a geographical zone, that can count toward the certificate. The zones are “East and Southeast Asia,” “South and Central Asia,” “The Near East and North Africa” and “Europe, Russia, and the North Atlantic.” For spring 2022, there are 15 eligible courses drawn from the Anthropology, Arabic, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, History, History of Art, Italian Studies, Judaic Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations departments.

The News spoke to eight professors involved in the program, including Lucas Bender, assistant professor of East Asian languages and literatures, who is teaching a new course called “Introduction to Chinese Philosophy” this semester. The course will count toward the medieval studies certificate as part of the “East and Southeast Asia” zone. 

Bender said that the course fills “a gaping hole in the curriculum,” as it provides an overview of important philosophical debates in China throughout the medieval period and into the early modern period. The course saw overwhelming student demand during the add/drop period; around 100 students came to the first class and ultimately around 70 students were able to enroll for the semester.

“I think a lot of courses related to philosophy predominantly deal with one tradition — very broadly, ‘the West,’” Bender said. “But there’s been a lot of thought about the same issues — ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics, linguist philosophy — in India, China and the Arab World. I think one of the challenges for the humanities is to make sure that the field truly represents all of humanity.” 

The issue of global representation in the medieval world is at the forefront of the new certificate program. Thornbury noted that the zone and discipline requirements of the program are designed for students to explore the Middle Ages more broadly than they might otherwise. As a result, medieval studies is a naturally flexible program — students have many options to fulfill the requirements in ways that best suit their interests. 

Shawkat Toorawa, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, said that the definition of “medieval studies” can be a vexed issue even for many medievalists. He noted that “medieval Baghdad” — an academic focus of his — is very different from “medieval Europe,” even if both might include the “medieval” moniker.

“I can think of colleagues in the field of medieval studies or Islamic studies who reject the term ‘medieval,’” Toorawa said. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s nomenclature — it’s there so that you can find a way to intelligently make sense of the topics at hand. So if I meet you and I say, ‘I’m teaching a class on medieval Baghdad,’ you have an idea of what I mean.” 

Students in the certificate program must also complete a lecture/event requirement. Students must attend at least three lectures or academic events focused on the Middle Ages and write one- or two-page reflections for each. 

Although the events do not have to occur at Yale, one Yale-based event that students can attend is an upcoming medieval studies “Humanities/Humanity” workshop, which the Whitney Humanities Center will host this April. According to the Center’s website, “Humanities/Humanity is a program that brings together small groups working to advance thought about foundational topics connecting disciplines.”

English professor Ardis Butterfield said that the idea for the event is to invite between 10 and 15 non-Yale colleagues to discuss medieval studies alongside Yale experts in a “very informal but focused way.”

“Because we’ve had a really exciting range of new faculty joining medieval studies, it’s a great moment to just think, ‘Well, what is medieval studies?’,” Butterfield said. “I suppose that’s what excites me about working in this area — the feeling that at any moment, my preoccupations and my assumptions might be completely overturned by thinking about someone else’s perspective. And that’s very good.”

Thornbury also highlighted the Medieval Studies Program’s ongoing “Medieval Lunch” series, which happens most Tuesdays at noon. Thornbury said that these events are a great way for students to learn about academic developments in the field of medieval studies while completing the certificate.

Three students working toward the certificate all enthusiastically recommended the program to interested students.

Blaise Fangman ’22 told the News that he learned about the certificate program during one of his courses in the fall before deciding that he wanted to pursue it.

“I was drawn to medieval studies by its interdisciplinary nature,” Fangman wrote to the News. “Studying the Middle Ages is great because it often feels wacky and fun, but the Middle Ages were also a long, formative period where lots of traditions were broken and reforged into more modern forms. … It’s [also] been fun attending the weekly Medieval Lunches and hearing lectures on a wide range of topics from members of the community.” 

Claire Mutchnik ’22 recommended the certificate program even though she never originally intended for medieval studies to be a curricular focus of hers.

“I stumbled upon the medieval studies certificate as a retrospective theme in my Yale coursework, rather than a contrived effort to satisfy requirements,” Mutchnik wrote to the News. “The program has broadened my understanding of what medieval means; Yale’s certificate in medieval studies operates in direct opposition to the commonly-held assumption that the Middle Ages occurred exclusively in Europe. … In an age where technology and science is increasingly prioritized (especially at Yale), it’s a special opportunity.”

Melia Young ’23, who is also working toward the certificate, said that her time studying the Middle Ages has shaped her potential career path and encouraged her to look into scholastic opportunities she might not have considered otherwise.

“This summer, I’m doing an archeological dig in Wales at an old Cistercian abbey,” Young said. “It’s super exciting and not something that I ever thought I would want to do.” 

Yale’s graduate program in medieval studies began in 1962. 

Evan Gorelick is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Woodbridge Hall, with a focus on the University's finances, budget and endowment. He also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production and Design Editor. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College double-majoring in English and economics.