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Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute celebrates 75th anniversary

| Friday, September 24, 2021

This year, the Notre Dame Medieval Institute is celebrating its 75th anniversary since its inception in 1946.

The Notre Dame Medieval Institute is the nation’s “largest and most prestigious” center for the study of the Middle Ages. It contains fifty faculty members from thirteen different departments and an incomparable library with a growing collection of manuscripts. Students within the Institute become future academics, medievalists and leaders in all spheres of life. Anyone can enjoy conferences and lectures which invite world-renowned scholars to campus.

Professor of history and Medieval Institute director Thomas E. Burman summarized the work of the Institute by reflecting on its history.

“It was founded in 1946, one of the oldest in North America,” he said. “It began as an institute to study the thoughts of the forebears of Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century. And over the years, its remit has expanded very broadly; we still have people studying 12th-century thought, but we are now very strong in areas like Old and Middle English and Old Norse, the language of Iceland and Norway. We study the history of Islamic theology, the history of Islam in the East, medieval Jewish thought and we have scholars studying almost the whole range of medieval topics that one can imagine, running from the North Sea through the far eastern end of the Mediterranean,” Burman said.

Courtesy of Megan J. Hall
The Medieval Institute holds a graduation ceremony in 2016. This year, the Institute is celebrating 75 years since its creation.

And after all these years, Burman said, the program is still going strong.

“From the beginning, we’ve had a graduate program, which has produced about 100 PhD students over the 75 years that we’ve been doing this,” he said. “Probably the majority of those students are from about 1980 onward. They have gone off to leading institutions as scholars of the Middle Ages in English departments, history departments, philosophy departments and theology departments. About 20 years ago we began an undergraduate program. At any time, we have about 40 undergraduate majors or minors. So, that is a thriving aspect of our institution as well.” 

Assistant director of the Medieval Institute Dr. Megan J. Hall has worked for six years in her current position, although she was involved with the Institute for longer. When asked to share more about the Institute’s role at the University, she, like Burman, pointed to its long-standing national prominence.

“We have the privilege of being an international hub for medievalist scholars, receiving many requests for people from other universities to come in and spend a few days or a week, or even a semester or year here as well,” Hall said. “We get to host a great group of people both on campus and off campus,” Hall said.

One of the many goals of the Institute’s 75th anniversary events was to incite curiosity and to allow people to explore their interests in the Middle Ages, no matter their background. The Institute specializes in a broad range of academic topics, Hall said.

“For anybody who is not sure what the ‘Middle Ages’ refers to, we basically define it as the period roughly spanning 500-1500 A.D.,” she said. “The Institute began with the study of the Catholic Middle Ages, which of course is fully entwined with the Middle Ages in Europe. Now, however, we have expanded our geographical reach, including faculty members and students who are working on the Mediterranean, Asia, [the] early Americas,and even down to parts of Africa. It’s really a tremendous privilege to be here and to have this Institute, as there are only a handful of places like this.”

Burman also spoke on the reason for the Institute’s continued existence: a long history of support from the University.

“The significance of the 75th anniversary in some ways is a testament to Notre Dame’s continued support for medieval studies, which is not necessarily characteristic of state universities,” he said. “But even among Catholic universities, Notre Dame is a little bit unique for its huge emphasis on the study of the Middle Ages. Part of the reason for this is that Fr. Hesburgh was a big supporter of this goal. He’s the one who, when the library was being designed, dedicated the seventh floor to medieval studies. So this celebration is a testament to Notre Dame’s amazing commitment.”

And proof of this commitment lies in the library’s large collection of manuscripts, Hall said.

“We have terrific collections of manuscripts that date back to the Middle Ages in the library, which the Institute is closely related to,” she said. “Students and faculty members can consult such historical works at their leisure. In addition, we have a number of facsimiles — exact copies of medieval manuscripts even down to the look and feel of the pages. So there is a tremendous set of assets in the Rare Books & Special Collections section on the first floor of Hesburgh Library. Sometimes we will have manuscript exhibits here at the Medieval Institute, and it is a pretty impressive show.”

Courtesy of Megan J. Hall
Medieval studies librarian Julia Schneider shows facsimiles to students at the Medieval Institute.

Preparations for the Institution’s 75th anniversary have involved an enormous amount of work and dedication, Hall added.

“We have been planning this anniversary for at least five years now, looking toward this great milestone. It has been such a joy to celebrate this long history,” Hall said. “When I was preparing for the 75th and putting together different events, writing up history pieces, I discovered that we actually prepared a big celebration for the 50th anniversary too; that event included a special Mass honoring the department. Now with the 75th, it is wonderful to reflect on how my predecessors have done such a great job of preserving different parts of our history. Between our files and the archives, we have a lot of good material which we can use to open up a window to the past 75 years.”

And the anniversary’s events are catered toward a variety of different populations, Hall said — not just current faculty and students.

“We’ve looked at it from a couple of different angles,” she said. “One is to help celebrate within our community, so people who are graduate students, faculty members and staff members. In addition, we were also searching for ways to welcome the broader community to join us. So we have a special alumni lecture series that we put together. We had the first of those earlier this month, and we have more upcoming lectures you can check out on our website.” 

Hall also elaborated on other initiatives being planned.

“We have also been putting together a number of more community-related events that we hope will draw people in from campus, and more broadly the South Bend area,” she said. “These include a number of tailgates that we’ve done. We did falconry just this past weekend, fencing the weekend before and we’ve got a blacksmithing exhibition coming up. We also have some more, perhaps a bit more scholarly and focused tailgates that will host roundtable talks about the Middle Ages.”

But the celebration of the Institute’s 75th anniversary is not limited to in-person events, Hall said — there are a number of online resources available as well, including livestreams of all upcoming lectures.

“We’ve had such a great turnout at our tailgates and our lectures, and I think people are really happy for the opportunity to come back together again in person,” she said. “But we also have tried to put together things that are accessible for those who aren’t comfortable in person yet. And so we’re simulcasting our lectures or putting them on YouTube or Zoom. We’re trying to really make this a celebration that everybody can attend.”

The Institute’s website and social medias have also undergone overhauls in celebration of its anniversary, Hall said.

“We have tried to create written pieces that people can enjoy that tell the story of the Institute,” she said. “A short video was released on our YouTube channel that talked about our founder, Fr. Philip Moore. And I really enjoyed watching it and learning more, even being an insider. It was terrific to know more about our origins. We do alumni spotlights regularly, but now we’re focusing on some of our oldest living alumni. So we’ve got one of our 1950s graduates, and he wrote an interview for us that we’ll be putting out this month. The best place I can send you to read these publications is our website. You can also click on our website to get to our Twitter feed, YouTube channel and Facebook page as well. We have a newsfeed that we’ve published at least once a week. We also have a 75th-anniversary landing page.”

In the time she has been producing and programming for the Institute, Hall said she has learned some interesting facts about the history of the organization.

“As I’ve been working to produce some of these write-ups, I’m uncovering really cool things: old commencement programs and old annual reports that talk about the great programs that we’ve had in the past and uncover the lives of incredibly famous scholars.”

Burman spoke on the success of the anniversary celebrations thus far, as well as his hopes for the future of the Institute at Notre Dame.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” he said. “So far our lectures have had great turnouts. We’re accomplishing exactly what we want, and we hope that the community gains much more awareness of what the Institute is doing and that they gain more awareness of the Middle Ages. My hope is that the Notre Dame community sees medieval studies as a crucial part of the core humanities approach of the University, since we led the way in turning Notre Dame into a research university.”

The purpose of such extensive celebrations is, according to Burman, a matter of raising awareness.

“One goal is to make the Medieval Institute better known on campus itself,” he said. “We’re very well-known around the world. All medievalists have heard of the Medieval Institute, and it’s considered to be a very prestigious place to study the Middle Ages. But a lot of people within our community hardly know it exists, which is not an unusual thing for an academic entity.”

Hall responded similarly, also expressing the Institute’s future hopes for community-building.

“We’ve got all these great tailgates. We’ve got lectures about a lot of programming that we’ve been putting together all of our digital exhibits. So we really would love to just let people know that we’re here, and that anyone can come and be a part of the Institute, they don’t have a formal affiliation,” Hall said. “They don’t have to be a major or minor, although they certainly could be welcome too. But we have such wonderful resources, both the collections and the people. And we would love to involve the Notre Dame campus community more in what we do here. We’re always excited to work with folks. It’s something you can’t miss if you study here.”

Further encouraging students to explore the academic opportunities of the medieval studies department, Hall spoke of the program’s versatility in conjunction with other majors.

“I really have been excited to see the creative ways in which students use a medieval studies major or minor and how they intertwine it with a modern pursuit,” Hall said. “For example, I know of a business major who was able to create a nonprofit business that helps serve historically underrepresented groups. They can tie their purpose into this larger, historical narrative. Our students are so talented, and they have just really amazed me with their ability to take what we have here and run with it. They continue to keep the Institute relevant to both scholarly pursuits and to real-world application. In that way, we can make history come alive and be very practical and useful for the present.”

Looking back on the long journey towards this anniversary celebration, Hall briefly reflected on the past, present and future of the Institute.

“We can know where we come from, how we progressed in that time and also what we are looking forward to: championing another 75 years of medieval studies.”

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About Marcelle Couto

Marcelle Couto is a freshman coursing the joint Philosophy/Theology major as well as Music. She is from São Paulo, Brazil, and was born in Rochester MN. Marcelle currently resides in Cavanaugh Hall.

Contact Marcelle