Going Medieval

By Morris, Catherine | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Going Medieval


Morris, Catherine, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


When something is described as "medieval" it's typically meant as a pejorative, conjuring up visions of a world narrowly constricted by class hierarchy, superstition and little to no innovation. But that view misses the mark: the medieval period encompasses 1,000 years of human history that set the stage for the modern era.

For her part, though, Dr. Dorothy Kyung Hi Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, is working to bring elements of the medieval world hitherto familiar primarily to scholars to the attention of the wider public.

Pop culture attests to a growing fascination with the medieval period through TV shows like Game of Thrones, which portrays a fantastic world based partially on stories and songs from that time. The Icelandic saga of Ragnar Lothbrok is still being told--albeit in sensationalized form--to a rapt audience on the History Channel's Vikings series as well.

But, as Kim says, there's much more to the time period.

"I've enjoyed pop culture, but I also find it strange sometimes that the imagined Middle Ages always have to be imagined as White," Kim says, adding that medieval illustrations and paintings show a mix of individuals of Caucasian, Middle Eastern and African descent.

The field of medieval studies can also be surprisingly subversive.

"[The field] has a long history of being imagined as very buttoned-up. But a lot of the texts are really quite far from that in some ways. The theological, philosophical and literary writers talked about anything and everything," she says. So while the tweed-jacketed, pipe smoking professor, a la J.R.R. Tolkien, may still be the stereotypical posterchild for the field, that vision is a little outmoded.

"The material always interested me because there are no rules. It's before any of the literary canon really came into existence, and so it's a really experimental field--there's a high threshold for trying ideas out," Kim says.

While Kim's academic specialty is early English literature, she has demonstrated a fascination with the modern digital world through a series of articles and blog posts on digital activism--and now, through an impressive digital archives project.

In 2013, she won a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities grant to create a digital archive of literature from the Early Middle English period.

"She's really innovative in doing very traditional medieval studies and folding that into digital humanities," says Dr. …

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