Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Middle Ages

A few years ago, the Medieval Institute launched a new scholarly initiative. Designed to highlight the wealth of scholarly information here at Notre Dame while increasing scholarly community and cross-communication across disciplines and ranks, the Medieval Institute Working Groups were established as a means of creating such an academic crossroad.

One of these groups, Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean, sought to push against the popular image of the Middle Ages as a uniquely Western European Catholic phenomenon. The organizers, Dr. Thomas Burman (Director, MedievaI Institute), Dr. Gabriel Reynolds (Professor, Theology) and Andrea Castonguay (Ph.D. Candidate, History), believed that by shifting the geographical parameters from Northwest Europe to the Mediterranean basin and opening up the confessional borders of scholarly investigation that had previously segregated the Middle Ages into self-contained Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim spheres, the Working Group would bring new perspectives to the idea of the Middle Ages and facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to the period.  If a topic was somehow tied to the peoples, cultures, and civilizations active in the Mediterranean at some point during the Middle Ages, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group judged the topic fair game for discussion, inquiry, and exploration.

The Catalan Map, c. 1525.  British Library Add. MS 31318 B

While this rubric for a field of critical inquiry might be seen by some as generous to a fault, its breadth is actually the Working Group’s greatest strength. By casting a wide net, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group attracted a diverse group of members and speakers, most of whom would not necessarily interact with one another in an academic setting outside of a social hour.

During our first year in 2017-2018, we hosted 8 sessions where the topics of discussion and the presenters themselves reflected the group’s diverse make-up. The inaugural session was led by Dr. Jeremy Pearson (Bryant University), then a postdoctoral fellow at the Medieval Institute, who presented an article on William of Tyre (d. 1186), an archbishop and Dominican friar of European origin born in the Crusader kingdoms and privy to a unique perspective on the interplay between European Christians, Levantine Christians, and their respective relationship to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Although not by design but by happenstance, the Working Group continued to focus on Christians in the the Middle East and how they responded to Islam during Fall 2017 by reading Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (UPenn, 2015) and hosting Dr. Jack Tannous (Princeton University) for a lecture and discussion on Syriac Christian sources and their importance for understanding the early centuries of Islam, the establishment of the Umayyad (661-749/750) and Abbasid caliphates (749/750-1258).

William of Tyre discovers Baldwin IV’s leprosy, from Histoire d’Outremer, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 12, f. 152v, mid 13th century. Image Source: Wikimedia .

During our Spring 2018 sessions, our attention turned to other parts and peoples of the Mediterranean and other types of scholarship. Whereas our Fall 2017 sessions focused on using religious texts to understand historical events, our Spring sessions turned to the ways in which different types of physical evidence, from archeological records, material culture, personal journals, could tell us about the medieval past. Dr. Sarah Davis-Secord (University of New Mexico) joined us for a discussion of her book, Where Three Worlds Meet: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Cornell UP, 2017) and spoke about the pros and cons of reconstructing centuries of history from physical objects in the absence of written records. Eve Wolynes (Ph.D. Candidate, History) presented a chapter from her dissertation on Venetian and Pisian merchant families and the various differences between Italian merchant families and commercial practices during the Late Middle Ages that her source material revealed over the course of her investigation.

Last but not least, the three co-organizers of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group, Tom Burman, Gabriel Reynolds, and Andrea Castonguay, all took turns presenting various works-in-progress to the group.  Gabriel Reynolds presented book chapters on sinners and sin in Islam from his forthcoming book, Allah: A Portrait of God in the Qur’an, while Andrea Castonguay presented a dissertation chapter on Muslim dynasties and competing Islamic sects in early medieval Morocco.  Tom Burman closed the 2017-2018 year by presenting with Dr. Nuria Martínez de Castilla (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris) and Dr. Pearson the fruits of their collaborative project on the purported correspondence between Byzantine Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 ) and the Umayyad caliph ‘Umar II (r. 717-720) and its dissemination in Latin, Armenian, Arabic and Aljamiado (medieval & early modern Spanish languages written in Arabic script) literature during the Middle Ages.

Poema de Yuçuf, c. late 14th century. Manuscript B; Author and copyist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia.

As the Working Group moved into its second year, its members sought to keep up the momentum while upholding the group’s commitment to rethinking the traditional academic boundaries of the Middle Ages. Noticing the lack of sessions devoted to Byzantine scholars and studies during the previous year, the members of the Working Group rectified that by asking the resident Byzantine postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Lee Mordechai and Dr. Demetrios Harper, for their recommendations. As a result, the group read Phil Booth’s Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent At the End of Late Antiquity (UCalifornia, 2017), which explored how monasticism, initially a very vocal way of rejecting centralized power and empire, became an important component of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire during the 6th and 7th centuries. In addition, Dr. Paul Blowers (Milligan College) was invited to speak about the interplay between the pre-Christian Classical world and the Christian Byzantine world in theatrical literature. Issues related to the Byzantine world and its relationship with the former Roman Empire were also discussed during a presentation by Dr. Ralf Bockmann (German Archaeological Institute Rome; Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton) by way of changes to church structures and saint veneration in Christian North Africa during the transition from the Vandal (435-534) to the Byzantine (mid 6th- mid 7th century) period.

In a similar vein, the organizers sought to diversify the Working Group’s membership by reaching out to new members of the wider Notre Dame and St. Mary’s community and asking them to present their research. Dr. Hussein Abdelsater, a new member of both the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies Department and Medieval Institute Faculty Fellows at Notre Dame,  presented a paper on the miracle of the splitting of the Moon and the ways in which it was discussed in Qur’anic exegesis. Dr. Jessalynn Bird (Humanistic Studies, St Mary’s) presented early work on Jacques de Vitry (1180-1240) and and Oliver of Paderborn (fl. 1196-1227) as part of a new book project on Mediterranean geography in the writings of Western Europeans. Dr. Robin Jensen (Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology) gave a presentation on the tension between early Christians, their adherence to the commandment to have no false idols, and the presence of Classical deities and statuary in the Late Antique Mediterranean landscape.

Falnameh: The Book of Omens,  16th Century Persian manuscript; Artist unknown. Image source: Source: US Library of Congress.

Moving outside of the South Bend community, Dr. Mark Swanson (Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago) was invited to speak about the ways in which Copts in Mamluk Egypt read various Arabic works such as the writing of Moses Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) and the Pentateuch of Saadia Gaon (c. 882 -942) and incorporated their ideas into Copic liturgy and liturgical writings. This presentation along with Dr. Swanson’s generous show-and-tell of publised Coptic primary sources was especially interesting to several upper year Theology Ph.D. Candidates working on Near Eastern Christian communities, who were pleased to learn more about the various resources available for the High and Late Middle Ages.

From its inception, the goal of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group was to bust down the various walls that silo academics and scholars into a specific discipline while reminding others–ourselves included–that the Middle Ages was a long historical period encompassing many different civilizations, peoples, faiths, and geographies, and that we need that multiplicity of specialists in order to understand this period in history. There is no such thing as a medievalist who can act as the sole representative of the discipline, nor can they bear the discipline’s weight all by themselves. Rather, there are medievalists working in concert with and parallel to one another and the strength of the discipline rests upon their abilities to connect with one another, share information, and challenge their own understanding of the Middle Ages through repeated exposure to the different flavors and facets of the period.

In order to best represent and reflect the multi-faceted nature of the Middle Ages and the diversity of contemporary medievalists, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the period is in order.  The Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean Working Group provides such a space, and it is our intention to keep this momentum going during the 2019-2020 year and beyond.  Stay tuned to MI News and Events for details and future meetings!

A. L. Castonguay
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

Sample Blog Post Assignment #2

Important Update 7/26/18: The Medieval Institute recently merged the Medieval Undergraduate Research website with this one. All posts from the old site have been transferred here, and the  undergraduate content can now be found under the "Undergrad Wednesdays" category. The rest of the information in this post remains accurate and up-to-date.

The assignment below supports our ongoing efforts to promote instructors’ use of the Medieval Institute’s sites for pedagogical purposes. Maj-Britt Frenze graciously shared this sample from her course on Tolkien’s Mythologies and Monsters. The first sample assignment can be found here, and the original discussion of the Medieval Undergraduate Research page can be found here.

Extra Credit Blog Instructions:

For up to 5 points added to their final grade, students may compose a blog (c. 500 words) based on content from the course. Students may adapt an existing project from the course into blog formatting or compose entirely new material.

Students will receive 2 points on their final grade merely for completing the assignment, and up to 5 points for truly excellent work which can be published on the Notre Dame medievalist website for undergraduate research.

Blog content may be based solely on one or more medieval texts, may compare a medieval text with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (or another fantasy author, if the student prefers), or may compare a medieval text with a modern film. [Potential questions to answer in your blog: How is this medieval text reimagined in a modern context? Why might any alterations have been made to the original story? What aspects of medieval works are still familiar and present in modern literature and film? Why are medieval themes so popular in story-telling today?]

The Blog posts will be graded on:

  1. Originality of Content: Did the student compose something new and exciting that delves deeply into a text/material?
  2. Careful and thorough use of source(s): Does the student incorporate a few short quotations from a medieval text? Does the student refer to movie scenes, etc, clearly so the audience can follow the student’s argument?
  3. Style: Does the student write in a clear manner? Has the student carefully proofread the piece?

Aesthetics: Did the student incorporate appropriate images and conform to any copyright restrictions? Does the design of the blog look appealing?

Maj-Britt Frenze
Ph.D. Candidate

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

Sample Blog Post Assignment #1

Important Update 7/26/18: The Medieval Institute recently merged the Medieval Undergraduate Research website with this one. All posts from the old site have been transferred here, and the  undergraduate content can now be found under the "Undergrad Wednesdays" category. The rest of the information in this post remains accurate and up-to-date.

In light of my recent introduction to the Medieval Undergraduate Research site as a useful pedagogical tool here, I thought it might be helpful for some instructors to see a few additional sample assignments in current use. Pasted below is the prompt I am testing out this semester in my upper division Canterbury Tales course, which, based on the drafts I’ve seen so far, is likely to produce successful results. A second sample written by Maj-Britt Frenze and designed as an extra credit project will follow soon.

I intentionally wrote the assignment below to be easily adapted for many kinds of courses. Please feel free to borrow and/or modify it for your own use. This assignment could also work for graduate courses (see my rationale on how important it is for grad students to build online, public profiles here).

Blog Post Assignment

[Note: This assignment has two due dates, one for a draft, and another for a revised version. Because students’ work will be available online for anyone to see, I want them put out their best, carefully revised work.]

Length: 750-1000 words

  1. For this assignment, you will be writing in a digital genre for a real audience of academic and public readers. Your work will be published online at the Medieval Institute’s Medieval Undergraduate Research site (
  2. Your topic should introduce and interpret a text (or, alternatively, a manuscript of the text) from the course calendar. Choose one that you have not yet written about and that you do not plan to write about for your final essay. This is a short piece, you want your topic to be specific, i.e.—one character in a tale, a particular setting, theme, image, etc.
  3. The point of this assignment is to learn what can be accomplished in a particular digital genre as opposed to a traditional academic essay. The following requirements are intended to get you thinking about how to present your work effectively using a technological platform, or, rather, how to craft your ideas with a slightly different set of tools. Your blog post must, therefore: 
  • Make a connection between the medieval text and the modern world in a way that demonstrates its relevance to the modern reader (connections to pop culture, tv, film, books, social media, news, etc., all work well). Why should your readers care about what they might see as an old, dusty, out-of-touch narrative?
  • Use multimedia intentionally and thoughtfully. Don’t just plop some pictures in and move on. Any pictures, videos, memes, etc., need to be on topic, integrated into the post, and add real value to the point you are making. If you use manuscript images, be sure the images are not copyrighted, or else let me know so that we can request permissions to publish them. Include photo captions when necessary to identify subject matter and/or cite the source/owner of the image.
  • Close read and interpret carefully chosen passages from the text.
  • Address a wide audience that includes your colleagues and professors, but also your family, friends, and future employees (who will care about your ability to write well!). In other words, don’t assume that your audience has previous knowledge about the text, or that they know the specialized jargon of your discipline. Do write professionally, but accessibly.
  • Include a Works Cited in MLA format at the end and, if relevant, consider linking to online resources in the body of the post. One advantage of digital genres is that you can insert links to other online academic resources anywhere in your post. Be sure to carefully vet those sources for quality and relevance. Libraries and museums (e.g.––The British Library, The Getty Museum) often have excellent catalogs, blogs, online galleries, and more. Many academics and universities also work on fantastic projects: online editions, facsimiles and images of manuscripts, mapping projects, blogs, etc.
  • Include a list of 5 tags (keywords about your posts). Blog sites are organized by categories and tags. Your post will be categorized under our course title “Canterbury Tales,” but you will decide the tags for your post. Tags are keywords that identify the subject matter of your work, such as authors, themes, time periods, etc. A user might, for instance, want to click on the “Chaucer” tag to see a listing of all the posts about Chaucer on the site.
  • Interlink with one or two of your classmate’s posts (in your final draft). Interlinking between posts on a blog site is one way to increase traffic and to highlight the connections between the site’s various entries. These links constitute a form of citation that is not possible in print essays, and they allow you to explore how to use this digital citation method. Thus, when you turn in your first draft, we will workshop the blog posts, and you will be required to make a connection between your work and someone else’s with a link to their post. You can simply write in brackets and bold text [link to X’s post here]. Integrate this connection as smoothly as possible into your text. It should sound like it belongs there, not like you added it because your teacher made you do it.                                                         

Some Sample Student Posts from Spring 2018

Astin Ballard, “Emily’s Modes of Expression in the ‘Knight’s Tale’-A Precursor to the #MeToo Movement

Natalie Weber, “Teaching the Canterbury Tales in the Alt-Right Era

Megan Kollitz, “Islamaphobic Rhetoric in Chaucer: Not Just ‘A Thing of the Past’

Follow-up: This assignment was one of the most successful ones I've given in over ten years of teaching. Many students commented on it in their student evaluations, and students simply write better when they have the freedom to choose a topic they're interested in, make the material relevant to their lives, and work in a popular genre that appeals to them. Try it!

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College