The Global Middle Ages for High School

The concept of a Global Middle Ages has shifted the paradigm of medieval studies over the past two decades. [1] It’s impelled scholars to look beyond their particular region or language of expertise to explore the interconnectivity of the world circa 500 to 1500 C.E. New research and publications are examining how commercial, intellectual, artistic, and cultural exchange brought different areas of the globe into contact. New graduate programs and undergraduate courses are training students to dialogue across disciplines, combining the humanities with computer science and bioarcheology. This approach promises to transform medieval studies for the twenty-first century.

Transformation is needed if we want secondary-school students – our future undergraduates – to continue learning about this period. Many state curricula have dropped the requirement to study anything premodern, implying that history began in 1500.

Happily for us, talking about the Global Middle Ages sparks young peoples’ curiosity. They are intrigued by historical narratives that overturn popular notions of the Dark Ages and lift up the cultural achievements of places other than Western Europe.

I speak from experience. This spring I taught an introductory medieval studies course at John Adams High School in South Bend, IN, through a partnership between Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute and the South Bend School Corp. The MI approached John Adams because it is an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. The IB is a global educational program that aims to form “internationally minded young people” ready to meet the challenges of world citizenship in the twenty-first century. The IB history curriculum is designed to “develop intercultural understanding” though the comparative study of more than one region. The ultimate goal is to “increase students’ understanding of themselves and of contemporary society by encouraging reflection on the past.”

Dr. David T. Gura, curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts at the University of Notre Dame, guides students from John Adams High School, South Bend, IN, on a tour of “The Word Throughout Time” exhibit.

Teaching the Global Middle Ages can meet these IB learning objectives by introducing high schoolers to the pluralistic cultures of the deep past. By reading travel narratives students learn that medieval merchants, envoys and missionaries needed to develop intercultural understanding in order to survive. After a guest lecture on trade, travel and migration by MI Mellon Fellow Mohamad Ballan, the John Adams students read excerpts from the tenth-century Travels of ibn Fadlan and the thirteenth-century Journey of William of Rubruck. These texts helpfully debunk the myth that all cross-religious encounters in the Middle Ages erupted in violence.

At the same time, medieval travel narratives describe the terror that humans feel when interacting with those who do not speak the same language or who subscribe to alternate belief systems.[2] Students reading these texts come to see the difficulty of acquiring cultural competence – a task that remains difficult today. That knowledge can foster humility, a virtue needed in globally minded citizens.

The John Adams course succeeded in helping students perceive the medieval globe as a place of cultural and religious diversity. One wrote in a final reflection:

One aspect of the Middle Ages that I was clueless about at the beginning of the semester is the significance of Islam in the medieval world, and the effect that Muslims had on architecture, technology, language, and philosophy in the Middle Ages.

Another reported gaining an “understanding of how every country and culture was connected and in relation to one another. It would be unfair to continue believing that the Middle Ages were this dark and clueless when it came to things that they had to use in their everyday lives.” Looking ahead to next year, I’m excited to help students explore this interconnectivity in greater depth and breadth.

Students from John Adams High School, South Bend, visited the Rare Books & Special Collections room in Hesburgh Library to see some of Notre Dame’s medieval manuscripts.

The MI hopes our school partnership will serve as inspiration for other medieval studies programs wanting to do public humanities and engagement work. Collaborating with an IB school proved fortuitous. Both parties share the goal of enabling students to understand our world today by reflecting critically on the deep past.

Annie Killian, Ph.D.
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame


[1] On coining the term and conceptualizing “The Global Middle Ages,” see Geraldine Heng, “The Global Middle Ages: An Introduction,” Elements in the Global Middle Ages, November 2021. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009161176.

[2] On Rubruck’s disorienting experience at a Mongol court, see Shirin Azizeh Khanmohamadi, “Worldly Unease in Late Medieval Travel Reports,” in Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages, ed. John M. Ganim and Shayne Legassie (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 105-20.

Optical Character Recognition with Tesseract: a Tutorial for Medievalists

This tutorial is for those of you who want to learn some basic programming in Python for the digital humanities, but also for those who have never programmed or may become filled with terror at the sight of a single line of code (trust me, I know the feeling!). At the end of this guide, you should know how to perform optical character recognition (OCR) to make a pdf searchable. For this, we are going to use “ocrmypdf”, a Tesseract based Python package with wonderful capabilities. Everything will be done online from your web browser, so don’t worry, you will not have to install anything on your computer! 

I have tried to keep the tutorial very simple and straight to the point, at the cost of occasionally sacrificing some useful and important explanations about the code. For that, I profusely apologize to my colleagues in the department of computer science. Please, do not send the Spanish Inquisition.

The name “Python” is a tribute to Monty Python, hence my poor joke.

Why Tesseract and ocrmypdf?

Some of you may be familiar with, or even regular users of the OCR function provided by Adobe Acrobat DC pro. The ctrl+f function is one of the simplest and most efficient tools to support analysis of text and research. Acrobat DC is a powerful and very easy to use software, but this comes at a price. First, Acrobat works only with a handful of common modern languages such as English, French, German or Japanese. Tesseract on the other hand can recognize characters from a broad variety of modern and classical languages, including, but not limited to, Armenian, Classical Arabic, Classical Greek, Syriac, and Old Georgian, to name only a few. Second, Tesseract is a free, and open-source software, presenting a more cost-efficient option compared to other expensive commercial options and I am sure many of you would rather settle for the free but equally powerful alternative.

First, go to https://colab.research.google.com/

This is a free Jupyter notebook that will save your data on your personal google drive. Just remember to hit the save button before closing the page.      

Open a new notebook and sign up with a Gmail address. You will want to use your @nd.edu address but any personal google account will work too.

As a first step, we need to download ocrmypdf, and all its dependencies. To do so, simply type the following lines. The first will download the python package ocrmypdf, while the other lines will deal with the dependencies. For those of you new to coding, you will learn the first rule of coding: any errors in spelling, indentation and so forth can break your code. Be careful!

When the above lines have been written, run the cell by pressing ctrl+enter or press the button in the upper left corner. The download process should take around a minute. Once the download is complete, you should see a little green tick next to the upper left arrow.

Once the package and its dependencies have been downloaded, we will need to import “ocrmypdf” so that we can put it to work. Add a line of code to your colab sheet by clicking on + Code and write the following code:

Next, add a copy of your scanned pdf to the “files/content” folder  on the left side of your screen (or any other folder of your choice, you will just have to note its path somewhere). In our case, we are going to work with the first page of an article on the Mevlevi Sufi order published by the Byzantinist Speros Vryonis Junior.

In a new cell, enter the following lines of code (beware, the underscores are double underscores!).

Here, the name on the left should be that of the file you want to ocr (or its path if put in another folder), the one on the right should be that of the new, postprocessed file. The code uses the exact name of the file, ‘Vryonis_Article.pdf’. You can keep the exact same name if you want the new file to overwrite the original one. In my case, my code is directing ocrmypdf to create a new file: ‘Vryonis_Article_OCR.pdf’. Once generated, the post-processed article should appear in the same folder.

If you ever get an error, simply restart the runtime before running the cell again.

Et voila! You can now search your pdf with ctrl+F or copy and paste any sentence you want.

But this is not the most exciting part of this tutorial, and we may want to spice things up a little bit. Tesseract is very good at OCRing (yes, this is a verb, at least according to the WordSense dictionary) non-Latin scripts, but the process is a bit more involved. As an example, let’s take a page from the Masālik al-abṣār mamālik al-amṣār written in the 14th century by the Syrian polymath al-ʿUmarī.

For this, you need first to download the Arabic trained data at https://github.com/tesseract-ocr/tessdata/tree/main/script

Then move the downloaded file to the following folder /usr/share/tesseract-ocr/4.00/tessdata

The process is the same as before, simply change the language code to that of the language you just added, in our case “ara”. The various language codes can be found here: (https://tesseract-ocr.github.io/tessdoc/Data-Files-in-different-versions.html)

وهو أثرى الممالك بلا احتشام خلا أنه بكثرة

And here we are. Those who can read Arabic will notice that the result is extremely impressive. This, however, is a rather neat scan and Arabic is often difficult to properly OCR because of the cursive nature of the script. If the quality of your scan is poor, you may also be able to clean it with Python beforehand for a better result. I may develop this point further in another post.

Beyond Arabic, Tesseract works very well with other non-cursive Semitic scripts, and you may get excellent results with Hebrew for example. Here is a last example from a Syriac Bible.

If you have any questions or comments about this guide, feel free to contact me.

Romain Thurin
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute

Women Medievalists in Modern Academia: Inspiration and Challenge

In this, the first of a multi-part series focused on women in modern medieval studies based upon an informal survey sent to the fellows of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the university’s admission of undergraduate women, we will be briefly exploring both the extraordinary contributions thatIn this, the first of a multi-part series focused on women in modern medieval studies based upon an informal survey sent to the fellows of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the university’s admission of undergraduate women, we will be briefly exploring both the extraordinary contributions that women scholars have made to the lives and scholarship of our own faculty members, as well as some of the continuing challenges faced by women medieval scholars in both their scholarship and careers. It is not intended to be an exhausted survey and still less the definitive statement on the matter. Rather, it is an anecdotal collage assembled from the helpful comments of Notre Dame’s own medievalists, to whom I am deeply indebted for their assistance and their candor.

Women Scholars as inspiration

Faltonia Proba
Image of Faltonia explaining the history of the Cosmos from an anonymous French translation of Boccacio’s De mulieribus claris (des cleres et nobles femmes), 1488-1496. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 599, f.83r.

The two most striking points of emphasis in the comments of all respondents were first, the personal inspiration and support offered by women scholars and mentors, and second, the considerable difficulties that continue to confront women within the academy. It is here that we will begin, with discussion of specific research contributions from modern scholars as well as the challenges and importance of studying medieval women to follow.

Many respondents mentioned not only the women scholars whose work has influenced and inspired their own, but also those who provided personal support and directly guided them.

Professor Deborah Tor, for instance, cites the extraordinary Patricia Crone, who, over the course of a career that saw her hold notable positions at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was “the greatest scholar in medieval Islamic history of the past hundred years” and “a figure so towering that she simply could not be ignored”, despite the considerable obstacles laid in her path, but who was also a valued mentor and friend. Professor Tor writes, “I undoubtedly learned more from her about historical inquiry, historical imagination, and the use of evidence, as all these relate to medieval Islamic history, than from anyone else in my life.” Professor Katie Bugyis credits two women with directly shaping the course of her academic career, both of whom we are now proud to count as Fellows of the Medieval Institute here at Notre Dame. The first of these was Margot Fassler, then at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music whose contribution to the collected volume Voice of the Living Light, edited by the equally remarkable Barbara Newman, left Bugyis convinced “I knew that I had to study with her as a graduate student at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music. I wanted to keep working on medieval religious women and their liturgical practices, and she was the very best scholar in the field with whom to undertake this research.”  Bugyis subsequently made good on her ambition and received her M.A.R. from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, summa cum laude. When Bugyis was choosing a PhD program, it was another woman who proved the decisive influence:

…when I was deciding between pursuing my doctoral studies at Yale or at Notre Dame, it was meeting with Kathryn Kerby-Fulton that finally tipped the balance in favor of accepting Notre Dame’s offer. Kathryn had been hired by the university shortly after I had graduated from the university as an undergraduate. I was very familiar with her scholarship on Hildegard of Bingen, and during my on-campus visit, I was keen to meet with her to discuss her work on women writers in medieval England. We talked for over an hour, and after that meeting, I left feeling like I knew nothing about the very writers and texts that I wanted to know something about. I was convinced that, if I wanted to become the kind of medievalist that I wanted to become, then I needed to work with Kathryn. I called my partner, Eric, immediately to tell him that we needed to rethink the plans for my future studies. This, of course, was a bit challenging because he was finishing up his doctorate at Yale, but he wanted me to get the best training that I could get as a scholar, and so I ended up accepting Notre Dame’s offer. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

In my own experience as both a student and as a professional academic, it would be all but impossible to overestimate the impact that women scholars had upon me. As an undergraduate, Professor Anne Clark was an invaluable source of guidance and an inspiration in her scholarship on Elisabeth of Schönau, Hildegard von Bingen, and Gertrude von Helfta. While pursuing my M.St. at Oxford, it was Professor Almut Sauerbaum who introduced me to Wolfram’s Parzival and who reliably provided the highlights every meeting held by the University’s extraordinary collection of esteemed medieval Germanists. To this day, I work hard in each and every class I teach to follow the standard set by Professor Jennifer Harris at the University of Toronto, who supervised me over the course of multiple appointments as a TA. The kindness and mentorship provided to me by Professor Bettina Bildhauer at the University of St Andrews, both during my first experience at an academic conference and, later, during my first professional appointment saw me through some of the most difficult moments in my professional development, and neither my dissertation nor any of the scholarship  work which has followed would have unthinkable without the work and support of innumerable women scholars, Ann Marie Rasmussen, Elke Koch, Katharina Philipowski, Christina Lechtermann… the list goes on. I consider myself extraordinarily privileged and honored today to count many amongst them as not only colleagues, but friends.

Eriphilia
Image of Eriphilia reading, from an anonymous French translation of Boccacio’s De mulieribus claris (des cleres et nobles femmes), 1488-1496. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 599, f.18v.

Challenges Facing Women Medievalists

Yet this long list of remarkable, influential women who have collectively shaped every aspect of my scholarly and academic development also masks some of the darker truths about modern academia. Despite the fact that many of the very foundations for the work that I was to pursue as a graduate student were laid down by women, and despite the enormous influence that the women listed above had upon me, throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I found myself shepherded from one male advisor to the next. It was not until the final years of my doctorate that I ever even found myself in a department headed by a woman (in this, case, the ever amazing Suzanne Conklin Akbari). Without in anyway wishing to diminish the accomplishments and contributions of these men, all of whom I account myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked with, it seems to have been assumed, without ever being verbalized, that for me, a white, cis-male scholar, the path forward lay primarily through other men. Even my doctoral committee consisted of four men and one woman (the aforementioned and remarkable Ann Marie Rasmussen), who joined by special dispensation. All of the other women scholars who contributed did so either unknowingly, through their work, or while remaining essentially unacknowledged institutionally, simply by being decent people, willing to help out a young scholar – doing so, at times, at considerable cost to themselves: time is never free. Mentorship is draining. Especially for junior scholars on the tenure track or under pressure to deliver a book on time, even a weekly meeting for coffee can risk derailing important progress. They did it anyway and continue to do it today for many others.

Although the field of medieval studies is, thankfully, no longer as profoundly male-dominated as it once was, the difficulties faced by women medievalists remain substantial. As one fellow of the Medieval Institute writes of her own experience, “Right before I was scheduled to give a presentation on one of the chapters of my dissertation… a very senior male scholar in the field approached me and said, ‘I am prepared to be skeptical.’ Rightly or wrongly, I keep his words at the forefront of my mind every time I work on my research because the burden of proof still remains so much higher for scholars of medieval women than it is for scholars of medieval men.” Another comments on the “old boys” network that still predominates at many, perhaps most, institutions when it comes to hiring practices:

I know for a fact about the final round of hiring for a position at one of the world’s great universities, which took place about ten years ago. I was told by one of the people who sat on the committee and saw the files that one female scholar led in the written scholarship component, and another female scholar led in the mock–teaching component. Neither was hired– rather, an Old Boy, who had led in neither area, was. Moreover, his principal recommender was also the principal recommender of the female candidate whose written work had put her in the lead, and that recommender specifically ranked the female candidate above the male who got the job. This outcome is quite typical.

This “skepticism” and, at times, outright opposition to the inclusion of women within the academy may be less prevalent today, but it remains all too common. It also exists alongside other, no less formidable, barriers that many women face in pursuing an academic career. Unforgiving deadlines are hardwired into the academic system both in the US and abroad. Deviations from the standard progression are seldom tolerated, and monitoring begins during one’s undergraduate studies.  For all academics, this often requires a dedication bordering on fanaticism, to the exclusion of all other interests, be they hobbies, personal relationships, or the interests of family. This last falls especially hard on women, whose graduate studies and early career, generally the highest-pressure phase for academics, coincides with the period of life in which most people so-disposed start families of their own. Such difficulties are only magnified for Women of Color and for those from less-privileged backgrounds. As one MI fellow comments:

Young scholars are all under increasing pressure to publish, with increasing precarity of the job market.  But a particular added challenge for women scholars is the continued tension between the expectations of total dedication to career advancement during the pre-tenure phase, and the fact that this is often exactly a period of increasing family responsibilities.  This tension has been addressed by many reforms, but remains very difficult to navigate for many; in the end, any progress is continuously undone by the arms race for the increasing number of publications that one is expected to produce, or grants that one is expected to manage, in order to distinguish oneself.  In addition, praiseworthy efforts to diversify, e.g., volumes, panels, editorial boards, etc., can become overwhelming for the small number of women scholars who exist in the field.

The fact that, even beyond pregnancy, the burdens of childcare fall, unjustifiably, predominantly upon women, can present an insurmountable obstacle for women who desire or feel pressured to pursue both a career a family life, all but eliminating not only the opportunity to thrive, but even, for some, any entry at all.

To make matters still worse, as mentioned by a number of respondents, such pressures and hostility all too often have a poisonous effect within the community of women scholars. In some cases, competition for the relatively limited number of desirable positions unofficially allotted to women scholars, competition and hostility sometimes result: “[T]he biggest personal obstacle I have encountered in my career was the overt hostility, and even explicit threats… of certain more senior female scholars within my department when I was a junior scholar.”

St Catherine of Alexandria (Patron Saint of Scholars)
Catherine disputes with the philosophers, c. 1280 (restored). Ceiling painting from the North Choir Chapel of St. Maria Lyskirchen, Cologne. Photo by Christopher Liebtag Miller.

Here it is worth noting that Medieval Studies, like academia as a whole, presents a diverse landscape. While some general trends may be observed and hold true across the board, there are certain areas in which notable deviations occur. In my own field, Medieval Here it is worth noting that Medieval Studies, like academia as a whole, presents a diverse landscape. While some general trends may be observed and hold true across the board, there are certain areas in which notable deviations occur. In my own field, Medieval Germanistik, for instance, it is striking to observe the dramatic increase in the number of women scholars active since the year 2000. While this evidence may be purely anecdotal, the vast majority of scholars that I find myself citing from the last two decades are women – as, increasingly, are the editors of the texts that I study.  Yet when I cite historians who engage with the period in which these texts were created, I find that the number of women scholars publishing become more scarce. With reference to medieval Islamic history, Deborah Tor comments:

Unfortunately, not much has changed. Not only is the field of medieval Islamic history overwhelmingly male, but except in the case of the sui generis Patricia Crone… the work of women typically does tend to be ignored, no matter how fine; or, worse, her ideas appropriated with no acknowledgment. There are some excellent women scholars in the field – Carole Hillenbrand, Louise Marlow, and Beatrice Manz spring immediately to mind– and I have no doubt that were comparable work being produced by men, these women would be occupying endowed chairs at Oxbridge or in the top rung of the Ivy League. But that simply does not happen in the field.

Even where progress in gender equality has been made, the divisions and discrepancies highlighted above point towards a further point of tension: that between fields and subjects that have come to be coded as “women’s’ studies” and those which remain or have become the domain of male scholars. This tension, as well as the manner in which the work of women scholars both past and present has shaped and continues to shape the field of medieval studies will form the focus of our next blog post in this series, to follow in the near future.

Christopher Liebtag Miller, Ph.D.
Assistant Teaching Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies and Engagement
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame