While in its developmental stages, Medieval Chicago’s potential to grow into its own project became rapidly apparent. The initial posts were so much fun to write, and what could be better than the opportunity to go on local pilgrimages to medieval(ish) sites? So, in lieu of this special series, I happily announce the creation of an entirely new website: medievalchicago.com. Keep an eye out for new content coming soon!
That said, readers should find material here for a wide range of historical interests. Anyone—residents, visitors, the curious-minded—interested in Chicago, the Middle Ages, art, architecture, manuscripts, and even local events might discover something new. Like many digital projects, this currently solo, ongoing work-in-progress will see periodic posts, rather than weekly. Nevertheless, I hope you take a moment to look at the photos and blog posts already there as well as future additions to the site as it evolves. I hope you enjoy exploring Medieval Chicago as much as I enjoyed creating it!
Although I didn’t create the assignment below until about six years ago, when reflecting back on my decade-long teaching career, it stands out as the most memorable and satisfying experience. Once written, it was, by far, the one I reused the most in almost every literature course I taught. It is utterly adaptable for undergraduates at any level, nearly always inspires students to become more deeply invested in their learning, and receives the most positive comments in teaching evaluations. In other words, this assignment is my most successful one, and the one that reminds me every single time of why I wanted to teach in the first place. It is also fun to grade (said no professor ever!), and I mean that unironically. There is, hands down, nothing like seeing students grow passionate about their work and enjoy the hands-on learning experience. For me, this assignment is more about the process than the final product, and effort factors into the final grade in a major way. I always explain to students that creative endeavors do not always end up as planned, despite a great deal of hard work. Sometimes mistakes or flaws in art work out to become something even better than planned, and sometimes not. That’s okay here.
I gage their efforts with a proposal and verbal reports along the way. As a result, students can explore, in a trial and error fashion, without the fear that their grade will suffer dramatically if their project doesn’t turn out exactly right. Oftentimes, I worry that students don’t get enough opportunities for that kind of active learning in their traditional essay assignments in which the quality of their arguments matters most, and these projects have helped me to build space for that in a structured manner. And, as a side note, the quality of student work tends to end up being much greater than expected probably because some of the pressure is taken off of them by allowing more freedom and control. And since they choose their own learning adventure, they simply care more about it.
Unfortunately, I may never have the opportunity to reuse this assignment, but I can’t fathom letting it stay buried in my personal wasteland of old computer files. So, in the off chance that somebody will find inspiration for their own teaching practices, I provide it here to be copied, revised, and adapted at will in any way that suits your instructional needs. It can remain completely open-ended, or made as specific and narrow as possible. Every part of it is flexible. I’ve used versions of it at public schools and private schools, for freshman and seniors, for general education and specialized courses. It works in any setting. Please feel free to use any or all of it, keep it the same, or make it your own. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear about your version of the creative assignment and how it goes in the comments section below.
“Their king [the kings of Daqin] is not a permanent one, but they want to be led by a man of merit. Whenever an extraordinary calamity or an untimely storm and rain occurs, the king is deposed and a new one elected, the deposed king resigning cheerfully. The inhabitants are tall, and upright in their dealings, like the Han [Chinese], whence they are called Da-Qin, or Han .”
This description of the Byzantine Empire by the 13th-century Chinese historian Ma-Duanlin would startle his Byzantine contemporaries used to palace intrigues worthy of the finest episodes of a popular tv show.
Chinese literati and intellectuals identified the ancient Roman Empire as Da Qin 大秦 or Great Qin. The term which emerged during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) is evocative of China’s perception of their western counterparts whom they regarded as equal to themselves. Whereas China ruled over the eastern parts of the world, somewhere far in the west, a counter China held the balance of the world. Under the Tang, another, more phonetically accurate term, Fu Lin 拂菻, emerged to describe Byzantium, the medieval iteration of the Roman Empire. Chinese historians probably adopted the more accurate Fu Lin from their Eastern Iranian and Turkic neighbors (Middle Persian: Hrum; Bactrian: φρομο), who were used to trading with the Byzantine Empire in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Even though Chinese historians knew that Da Qin and Fu Lin were the same entity, knowledge of a powerful empire far in the west did not prevent them from intermixing facts and fictions. According to an eleventh-century account, the mighty Fu Lin could field a large army of a million men. At the head of such an immense army, the kings of the Romans ruled supreme. Fu Lin enjoyed the rule not only of astute military kings, but also of the wisest men in Western Eurasia. Unlike the hereditary Chinese monarchies, Chinese historians claim that the Romans elected their kings from among the wisest and most meritorious. Deposed kings did not oppose their fate, but resigned quietly. Rather than causing considerable troubles and protesting, they stepped down and cheered for their successor, a testimony of their great wisdom.
Ma Duanlin presents Da-Qin/Fu-Lin as a utopia ruled by competent, quasi-philosopher kings. Ironically, the Chinese historian who died in 1322, was a (very distant) contemporary of some of the most gruesome depositions to take place in Byzantium. Among the many examples, and a list far too long for a blog post, stands the infamous Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282). Michael emerged as the sole emperor of Byzantium after brutally blinding his rival, the very popular John IV Laskaris, an eleven-year-old child. Michael’s contemporaries vilified the emperor for his wretched behavior. Arsenios Autoreianos, the patriarch of Constantinople, excommunicated Michael as a response to the blinding of Laskaris. One may also be tempted to summon the case of John Kantakouzenos who ruled between 1347 and 1354. Kantakouzenos, who became emperor after six years of civil war, triumphed over his rivals thanks to the help of the Turks of Orhan Ibn Osman, the son of the founder of the Ottoman Beylik. The early Ottomans benefited from the Byzantine civil war and gained a European fortress for the first time. Could Ma Duanlin, who relied on sources tracing back to the Han Empire, have seen Roman institutions as immutable and expected the emperors of the 13th century to be elected in like fashion to the consuls of the Roman Republic? Nevertheless, the cold reality of palace coups in 13th-century Byzantium was a far cry from the elective utopia described by the Chinese historian.
Perhaps more tantalizing are the many fantastic elements found in Chinese descriptions of the Roman Empire and Western Eurasia. The same Ma Duanlin claims that the Romans were fond of a highly peculiar type of pearl. The Romans collected these pearls of jade, not from mollusks, but from the saliva of a curious species of bird. Likewise, according to Chinese historians, the Romans lived near a mysterious group of dwarves. These dwarves, a far cry from Tolkien’s rugged miners, were allegedly so small that they constantly looked towards the skies, fearing cranes who dined on their kin. The dwarves relied upon the Roman armies to fend off the cranes. As a compensation for their help, it is said that they paid their Byzantine benefactors with many precious jewels and gems.
Although we may never find out where Chinese historians got some of this information, the far west of Eurasia fascinated the imagination of generations of Chinese literati who saw it as a land of myths and legends where wise kings cohabitated with fantastic birds and mysterious dwarves.
R.T., PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame
In English: Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records, (Leipsic and Munich, 1885).
In Turkish: Bahaeddin Ögel, “Göktürk yazıtlarının Apurimları ve Fu-Lin Problemi,” Türk Tarih Kurumu Belleten 9 (1945): 63–89.
In Chinese: Jianling Xu, “Bàizhàntíng Háishì Sài Ěr Zhù Rén Guójiā? Xī ‘Sòng Shǐ·fú Lǐn Guó Chuán’ de Yīduàn Jìzǎi,” The Journal of Ancient Civilizations 3/4 (2009): 63–67.
 Original text and translations in Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records, (Leipsic and Munich, 1885). Translations are from Hirth.