Medieval Institute partners with Adams High School for hands-on course in medieval history

Author: Erin Blasko

The Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame recently welcomed to campus a group of students from John Adams High School in South Bend. The students, five boys and three girls, viewed centuries-old prints and manuscripts in the Hesburgh Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, as well as sculptures, jewelry and other decorative and fine art objects at the Snite Museum of Art.

It was all part of Why the Middle Ages Matter, a newly designed course meant to introduce local high school students to the Middle Ages — and, by extension, to diverse methods of historical research — in a way that emphasizes the period’s diversity and vibrancy as well as its relevance to today.

A collaboration between the Medieval Institute and South Bend Community School Corp. (SBCSC), the course, featuring a rotating cast of guest teachers from the Medieval Institute, covers a range of topics, from empires, religions and cultural encounters to education and governance and literature and culture. In doing so, it emphasizes innovations from the period that influence life today, from advances in arts, culture, economics and governance to the invention of the clock and other mechanical devices and enduring notions of gender, marriage and the role of religion in society.

Thomas Burman, the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute, conceived of the course as a way to introduce high school-age students to the vast scope of medieval history, from eastern and Western Europe and the Mediterranean to the intersection of Christian, Islamic and Jewish cultures. The goal: encourage college-bound students to consider medieval studies as a scholarly path beyond high school.

Plans are already in the works to offer the course again next year, both in the fall and spring semesters and possibly for college credit.

“The Middle Ages aren’t just for ivory-tower academics. Lots of  people are currently fascinated by the Middle Ages as they are portrayed in movies, television and computer and board games,” Burman said. “We’re trying to build on that interest by exposing high school students to both the material remains of that period that Notre Dame is fortunate enough to own, and to the amazing breadth of faculty expertise that the Medieval Institute offers.”

Sister Ann Killian, who developed and now leads the course as a public humanities postdoctoral fellow at the Medieval Institute, said, “We’re learning about a Middle Ages that’s about cultural encounter, a world that stretches from the Middle East to Ireland, a time of technological innovation. The clock, eyeglasses, universities, representative assemblies were all invented in the Middle Ages. It’s a historical period that is still relevant to our lives and to the world more broadly.”

The course meets five days per week and consists of readings, lectures and encounters with “material culture,” or the tools, art, buildings and written records that surround people and satisfy their needs.

“One of the goals is to introduce students to how history and scholarship works, and really looking at primary sources, which includes material culture,” Sister Killian said. “And Notre Dame has wonderful resources in terms of actually getting to look at and touch medieval manuscripts and medieval art.”

Adams High School students vist Rare Books and Special Collections
Students in an Adams High School senior seminar class get to touch the parchment pages of a medieval book in Rare Books and Special Collections. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

To that end, the students were able to view and even touch a number of medieval objects from both Rare Books and Special Collections and the Snite.

Highlights included a collection of prayer books, dating to the late Middle Ages, on display as part of “The Word Throughout Time: The Bible in the Middle Ages and Beyond,” the latest exhibit in Rare Books and Special Collections.

“They’re called ‘Books of Hours,’” David T. Gura, curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts in Rare Books and Special Collections, said of the diminutive volumes. “They’re made to be kind of carried around. If you have a pocket you can put it in there. You can wear it.”

One of the books, dating to about 1450, included a color illustration of a scene from the book of Job — part of the prayer cycle known as “The Office of the Dead.”

“What does it look like is happening in the picture?” Gura asked.

“I see a monk reading a book,” a student said. “I see a bunch of people in the back.”

“Yeah, look at the people in the back,” Gura said. “What are they wearing?”

“They’re wearing all black,” a student said.

“Right, they’re wearing all black,” Gura said. “So this is actually a funeral scene. The people in black are not monks. Those are the professional mourners that you hire to come to your funeral and to cry for you.”

The students laughed.

In addition to Biblical texts, the students viewed coins, a gold-ground Madonna and child, a reliquary bust and other practical and fine art objects from the University’s vast collections of medieval objects.

The students got to hold the coins.

“I’ve never touched something this old,” one of them marveled.

The students will visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart later this semester as an example of “medievalizing architecture.”

“I was amazed,” Betsy Leija, a senior at Adams, said afterward, noting the sheer age of the objects she and her classmates were able to see and hold. “I’d never seen anything this old before.”

As Beckie Hernandez, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme coordinator and magnet facilitator at Adams, noted, it’s one thing to view history on the page, “but to see it live and be able to touch it is a whole other experience.”

She added, “There’s a lot to be said for experiential education, and this is it.”

Established in 1946, the Medieval Institute is the oldest and largest center in the U.S. dedicated to the study and teaching of all aspects of medieval culture. It is the leading institution in the U.S. for the study of medieval Catholic culture and history, and a distinguished center for research and education on Greek Byzantium, Arab Islam and the Jewish diaspora.

Originally published by Erin Blasko at on February 28, 2022.