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.

Public Humanities and the Future of Medieval Studies

It is the work of public humanities to question how we wield memories of the past for present ends. Through community-engaged teaching and learning, medievalists have the opportunity to pass on memories of the Middle Ages that move us toward social justice. We must begin by telling the dangerous memories of suffering that marked the millennium between 500 and 1500 C.E.: the expulsion of Jews from Christian kingdoms, Crusades against Islamic rulers in the Holy Land, and other instances of violence against religious and ethnic minorities. However, violence is not the whole story. At different times and places during these 1000 years, people of different religions and cultures lived peaceably side by side. Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain shared new learnings from Greek and Arabic writings on theology and philosophy. In the Levant, crusaders of diverse ethnicities farmed alongside their Muslim neighbors, not only tolerating the other’s religion but even appreciating their style of worship. Many Christians converted to Islam. Travel along trade and pilgrimage routes brought medieval people into contact with cultural others as they traversed commercial networks spanning from China through Syria and around the Mediterranean to North Africa and Europe. Migration compelled people to settle far from home, carrying their culture with them and adapting to their new circumstances. This is the more complicated story we need to tell.

A student studies a facsimile of the Catalan Atlas in the Medieval Institute library.

Through public humanities initiatives, medievalists can engage community partners in remembering a messier, more complex Middle Ages and discovering the relevance of that memory to our messy and complex world today. At Notre Dame, the Medieval Institute is animating students and faculty to engage the wider community on campus and beyond. This fall we hosted Game Day events during which the community could learn from local artisans who practice historically informed crafts. We sponsored roundtables that put MI faculty fellows in conversation with scholars working on labor and religion to discuss issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring we are partnering with a local public high school to offer an elective history course on the global Middle Ages and participating in the public library’s hands-on science programming. These initiatives invite our community partners to think critically with us about popular (mis)conceptions of medieval culture, to challenge modern assumptions about the past, and to lift up the stories of marginated medieval peoples: women, laborers, and religious and ethnic minorities.

Mark Booth talks about training falcons for hunting at a Game Day event in September 2021.

It is challenging to envision ways of engaging a broad public in reimagining history and its meaning for us today. Nevertheless, I care about this work because the dangerous memories of the medieval past help me imagine – and hope for – a more just future. In the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ, executed by the state for challenging the power of empire, is subversive of the status quo and impels Christians to work for liberation. I perceive medieval art and literature to be full of similarly dangerous memories: of women who dared to write against the fearful and patriarchal theologies of their day, of poets who critiqued ecclesiastical abuses of money and power, of reformers who wanted all people to have access to sacred scripture in their mother tongue and who dreamed of “a poor church, for the poor.” Theirs are the stories I want to remember from the Middle Ages – stories that feel urgently relevant for our time, as dangerous then as they are now.

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

Thinking Sex, Teaching Violence, and The Book of Margery Kempe

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Margery Kempe. In fact, I’ve thought about little else the last few months, since her Book was the focus of my most recent chapter in a dissertation that examines women’s desire in Medieval English texts – and The Book of Margery Kempe has a lot to say on the subject. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how Margery thinks about sex and why she thinks about sex the way she does.[1]

I’ve also been thinking a lot about teaching – lately, about teaching The Book of Margery Kempe. I love teaching, and I love thinking about literature courses I’d love to teach. As a scholar whose research focuses on representations of women, I look forward to teaching a course devoted to medieval women one day. The reading list would obviously include works written by women during the Middle Ages, and we have few examples, especially in English. I will be teaching The Book of Margery Kempe, and when I do, I want to do it well, so I was wary of the weariness I’ve experienced while reading it.  

The opening page of the manuscript containing The Book of Margery Kempe where the work is described as “a short treatise and a comfortable for sinful wretches” in the first line (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 1r).

Much like Margery, I have a confession to make: I have never been especially fond of her Book. But I have also never failed to recognize its value. As one of the only known Medieval English works written by a woman and often considered the first autobiography written in English, her Book is extremely precious, in part, because it provides us insight into a medieval woman’s life that is dictated in her own voice if not written by her own hand. It survives in a single manuscript, discovered in 1934 and dated to approximately 1440. When I had the opportunity to see the manuscript on display at the British Library, I revered the object behind the glass because I understand the worth of its words. When I re-read the narrative recently, I felt exhausted, often frustrated that so many pages remained until its end.

The Book is long; it is neither chronological nor linear. Sometimes it seems repetitive to the point of redundancy. But it is salacious, tender, even occasionally funny. It is also profoundly sad.

Excerpt in which Margery describes how “she went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits” for the better part of a year following the birth of her first child, during which time she was tormented by visions of “devils” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 4r).

Best known for her spectacular physio-emotional displays that so often occurred in public and provoked concern, Margery Kempe has always been a controversial figure as a woman mystic. Her Book is, in many ways, a memoir that recounts her spiritual journey, tracing the origin of her mystical experiences to the birth of her first child at age twenty and the self-described madness that ensued. It is only when Christ appears to her, seated next to her on her bed, that Margery’s sanity returns. In many of her visions, Margery’s interactions with Christ exhibit sexual undertones; indeed, some visions are overtly sexual. While erotic language and metaphors were not uncommon in medieval mystical writing, especially those involving women mystics, Margery’s visions are unusual in that they imply sexual activity with Christ himself.

A characteristic episode of Margery Kempe describing a visit to “the church yard of Saint Stephen” where “she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently the fire of love burnt in her heart” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 71v).

Margery describes herself as illiterate in her preface, but this does not mean that she was unlearned. It does, however, mean that she required a scribe. Her narrative was mediated by two male scribes, which complicates her status as an author, an already fraught term in the Middle Ages on par with autobiography, since the genre did not yet technically exist. She was a wife, the mother of fourteen children, and inordinately mobile, traveling for extended periods of time on pilgrimage to holy sites, which took her away from her husband and children. Unlike other religious women, Margery was neither virginal nor cloistered. She preferred to be on the move, and traveling was one of the ways she was able to avoid unwanted sex.  

Bishop blessing an anchoress, a woman who lived a life of enclosure dedicated to prayer and contemplation (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 079: Pontifical, dated 1400-10).

Here, I pause to provide a content warning and meditate for a few moments on what that means. The discussion that follows involves sexual violence, a topic tied to gender and power, which are, in turn, topics pertinent to any discussion of literature. Because I am constantly working at the intersections of gender, sex, and violence, I think a lot about how to prepare my students to successfully navigate discussions of sexual violence, knowing very well that it may be personally relevant for them. After all, sexual assault is rampant in the United States, with one in three women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. One in five women experiences sexual assault while in college, and they are most vulnerable during their first year. While men experience sexual violence at a significantly lower rate than women, those who do are likely to have those experiences prior to or during college. Sexual violence remains an omnipresent part of our cultural conversation, even when we’re not talking about it explicitly and we should be.

A content warning is a standard feature of my syllabus. I believe that my students should be aware that they are likely to encounter sexual violence in our reading. It does not encourage them to opt out of reading assignments or evade challenging discussions; instead, the contextualization enables them to wrestle meaningfully with the material in the way that best fits their needs and fulfills our learning goals. If they are prepared for the content, they may be able to avoid unnecessary triggering, a term that gets tossed around far too frequently by folks who are far too flippant about rape culture and has been distorted through stigmatization. A “trigger” warning suggests an inevitable, uncontrollable reaction, whereas a “content” warning cues students to prepare accordingly. Semantics aside, we need to be proactive when teaching The Book of Margery Kempe.

Following the spiritual revelation that sparks her mysticism, Margery renounces sexual activity. She commits herself to chastity and begs her husband to live chastely with her – that is, to allow her to abstain from sex, to not force her to have sex with him. He refuses. For years, Margery endures marital rape.

I realized recently that my ability to properly empathize with her situation had been impaired by my own biases about the narrative’s style.

I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which unravels the relationship between speech and gendered violence. There is a point at which Solnit refers to the 1940s and 1950s, which I always think of as the decades from which Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique emerged and exposed the tragic irony of America’s failure to understand how women could possibly be so miserable as housewives when they couldn’t get a credit card without a husband and couldn’t get birth control, period. While contraception was legalized in 1965, women could be legally raped by their husbands in the United States until 1993.

Publicity Director of Planned Parenthood Marcia Goldstein with signage prepared for display on New York buses in 1967 (photo by H. William Tetlow, Getty Images).

Solnit simply refers to the dates for the purposes of prefacing an anecdote about a man she knew who, during that time, “took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision.” She writes, “Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.”[2] Margery immediately came to mind.

During the medieval period and well beyond, women ceased to occupy a separate existence from their husbands when they married. A wife did not retain a will of her own; her will was legally subsumed by her husband’s. On this subject, I am well versed. But for some reason, Solnit’s exemplar resonated with me more acutely than Margery’s experience previously had. Certainly, the rather arduous experience of reading her Book had engendered more impatience than sympathy, but I had failed to really feel the extent of her suffering, and for that I felt deeply guilty.

I returned to the passage where Margery describes her sexual loathing and her subjection to repeated rape:

“And aftyr this tyme sche had nevyr desyr to komown fleschly wyth hyre husbonde, for the dette of matrimony was so abhominabyl to hir that sche had levar, hir thowt, etyn or drynkyn the wose, the mukke in the chanel, than to consentyn to any fleschly comownyng saf only for obedyens. And so sche seyd to hir husbond, ‘I may not deny yow my body, but the lofe of myn hert and myn affeccyon is drawyn fro alle erdly creaturys and sett only in God.’ He wold have hys wylle, and sche obeyd wyth greet wepyng and sorwyng for that sche mygth not levyn chast.”[3]

“And after this time, she never had the desire to have sex with her husband, for the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, eat or drink the ooze, the muck in the channel, than to consent to any fleshly commoning, except in obedience. And so she said to her husband, ‘I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affection is drawn from all earthly creatures and set only in God.’ He would have his will, and she obeyed with great weeping and sorrowing because she could not live chastely.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about those particular tears. Or my misgivings about her memoir.

Carving of a medieval woman on the end of a pew in King’s Lynn Minster, formerly known as St. Margaret’s Church, the parish church of Margery Kempe (photo courtesy of Laura Kalas, author of Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine: Suffering, Transformation, and the Life-Course, published by D. S. Brewer, 2000).

With more than 500 years between us, it can be challenging at times to make tangible how extraordinarily different and difficult medieval women’s lives must have been – and yet, sexual violence remains so prominent a presence in our daily lives that content warnings appear in my syllabi.

I see Margery Kempe so much more clearly now, the medieval woman writer who is a singular survivor just like her Book. And I want my students to be prepared to see her as I do: individual and immortal.

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] While it is obviously standard practice to refer to an individual by their surname, this practice also presumes that one’s surname represents the individual to whom it refers. Perhaps less obvious are the problems with identifying medieval women by their surnames when those very names are indicative of the subsuming of their identities by their husbands in conjunction with coverture, the legal doctrine that removed a woman’s rights and separate existence in marriage. Margery Kempe’s surname, for all intents and purposes, is tied to her erasure as a woman. I have chosen to refer to her as Margery to center her as an individual and retroactively counteract the masculine authority that governed her existence. 

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 59-60.

[3] The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: The Medieval Institute, 1996), 26.