The Charm and Utility of Medieval Studies

Guest Correspondence

BY DONAL O'SHEA SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAR 10, 2018

Every other year since 1978, medieval and Renaissance scholars from colleges and universities across North America have converged on Sarasota for three days in March to participate in New College’s biennial Medieval-Renaissance conference. This year’s meeting is March 8-10. In the early years, the conference also included an associated fair, which was spun off as the for-profit Sarasota Medieval Fair.

This year’s conference features more than a hundred talks detailing recent findings on such topics as economic development in 13th-century Catalonia, hypocrites in Medieval Arabic literature, and the slave trade in the Mediterranean. Conversations outside the talks range even more broadly. One might learn of life in a medieval hamlet in what is now Norway, or leprosy and marriage, or of the breakdown in the social fabric in a Tuscan village following plague and famine. In years past, I’ve learned of the machinations accompanying the founding of the University of Pavia, the demise of a literary group in 15th-century Siena and the horrific murder of Hypatia, the great Neo-Platonist mathematician, perpetrated by a crazed Christian mob determined to erase every last trace of her learning and her beauty, her intelligence and her achievement.

The breadth of topics is unsurprising given the vast time period spanned—1,200 years. Some topics may seem arcane, but more often than not, they echo eerily in our times. Medievalists take a long view, and the window through which they observe human society is much wider than the windows of those of us who rely on personal experience of the present. They talk of the fall of empire, the loss of knowledge and the horrific winters following volcanic eruptions centuries ago. 

The conference reminds us why universities exist. Universities house scholars who devote their lives to understanding societies that have largely disappeared. These are teachers who spend vacations in archives, poring over manuscripts and materials that have survived war and pestilence and natural disasters. Those presenting at this conference will know on average six or seven languages, some long forgotten. Their aggregated knowledge is staggering. Their openness, collegiality and eagerness to share are palpable.

And of course, there are the students who will, in the courses that medievalists offer, meet versions of themselves in societies long vanished. In so doing, they will understand themselves and our society better. In time, perhaps they will use this insight to act more effectively for the greater good.

There is something magnificently selfless about all this. For me, it epitomizes what is best about the academy, and by extension, our civilization.

Members of the public are very welcome at the conference. For more information visit www.newcollegeconference.org.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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