The Exciting Adventures (and Misadventures) of Stained Glass: An Interview with Dr. Rachel Koopmans

This week, we’re looking back at an earlier episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” In late 2022, we chatted with Dr. Rachel Koopmans, Associate Professor of History at York University Toronto, and Notre Dame alum. We talked with her about her work on the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral, the preconceptions of ‘medieval’ that students bring to their first medieval history classes, and gratitude for antiquarians of the past.

We tend to think of humanities research as a solitary pursuit; lone scholars in dusty archives, poring over ancient manuscripts. But Dr. Koopman’s experiences researching the glass of Canterbury Cathedral was a reminder that our work is built upon generations of previous scholars. We are, in a real sense, in a conversation with researchers of the past and future. For Dr. Koopmans, this seems to have been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is thanks to the tireless efforts of past antiquarians, librarians, and lovers of history that materials survive to us at all. We also rely on their work to be able to chart the history of an object over the years. But there are also those who have been motivated by other forces. They might have falsified documents, forged artworks, or simply altered a narrative to suit their own ends. Dr. Koopman’s own experiences with past custodians of Canterbury who fabricated stained glass and inserted it into the beautiful cathedral windows tell us that we should not uncritically accept the work of those who have gone before us.

Students come to medieval literature or history courses for all sorts of reasons. Many have an idea of what the Middle Ages were firmly planted in their heads. The ‘Dark Ages’ is still thrown about in public discourse, so students are usually surprised when they discover that the period was filled with innovation, art, and freethinkers. It was wonderful to hear of how Dr. Koopmans tries to challenge their notions of what it is to be ‘medieval.’ Modern scholarship takes ‘medieval’ to be a far broader term than in the past; our research spreads beyond the confines of Europe to Africa, across Asia, and beyond. We hope that when listening to this episode, you’ll be surprised or inspired to find out more about the everyday lives of medieval people.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame