What are the Middle Ages—and why should you study them?

The "Middle Ages" is the name given to a thousand-year-long period of European and Near Eastern history and culture spanning the period between "Antiquity" (c. 1000 B.C.E.-500 CE) and "Modernity" (c. 1500 CE on). Those who defined themselves as "modern" came to view the medieval period condescendingly, associating it with a small number of basic themes and images such as heroism and chivalry, courtly love, "feudal" society, religious fervor, and repression of heretics, non-Christians, and non-conformists of every stripe. Of course, all of these are stereotypes, which tell us far more about "modernity" than they do about a period whose innovations—such as the centralized monarchy, universities, vernacular literature, artillery, and clock time—are essential parts of Western as well as global culture as we know it today. Learning about the vast and varied period known as the Middle Ages, therefore, offers a unique and valuable perspective on modern history and culture. It also allows you to see the many different ways in which human societies function, invent, create, believe, and interact. From the viewpoint of its cultural descendants in the New World as well as the Old, the Middle Ages is both "us" and "not us," at once part of our collective heritage and something very, very different.

Studying the Middle Ages at Harvard extends well beyond the classroom. Students are encouraged to attend a wealth of presentations, workshops, and symposia by world-renowned scholars, share the results of their own research in a lunchtime lecture series, and even serve on the editorial board of Sententiae, Harvard's own peer-reviewed undergraduate journal of Medieval Studies. In turn, many of Harvard's study-abroad programs offer the chance to explore the vestiges of medieval society in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The undergraduate program in Medieval Studies is constantly expanding and evolving, reflecting the interests and passions of Harvard students like you. We hope that you will help it to grow!

Medieval Studies and History and Literature

Undergraduates wishing to pursue a Medieval Studies concentration are encouraged to consider the "Medieval World" field offered by the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature, with the collaboration of the Committee on Medieval Studies. Students in Medieval World focus on the cultural, religious, and political development of Latin, Slavic, and Byzantine Europe, and their relationships with the Islamicate world, including Islamic Africa and the Near and Middle East. You thus will have the opportunity to explore, from a wide variety of disciplinary and geographical perspectives, the fascinating complex of civilizations and religions (most notably Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that shared the space stretching from Barcelona to Baghdad, from Marseilles to Muscovy, and from Trier to Timbuktu. For more information on Medieval Studies and History and Literature, please visit the History and Literature website, or contact Sean Gilsdorf.

Undergraduate Secondary Field in Medieval Studies

The secondary field in Medieval Studies examines the Middle Ages from many different angles and through the eyes of many different disciplines, drawing on the wealth of medieval teaching and scholarship at Harvard, where there are faculty medievalists in at least twenty departments, programs, and schools. The secondary field consists of one foundational half-course, which can be taken in any discipline, plus four more advanced courses, designed to expose students to a variety of the wide range of disciplines which make up Medieval Studies. Some of these courses teach or require specialist skills, but most are intended to be accessible to any interested student, whatever their field of specialization.

While students in the College are not required to submit their secondary field paperwork until their final semester, we encourage those considering a secondary field in Medieval Studies to meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies in their sophomore or junior years, in order to review their plan of study and discuss their options in the field.

Requirements (5 half-courses)

1. A foundational course, chosen from among any of the courses listed here. History and Literature 97a may fulfill this requirement if it focuses upon medieval topics.

2. Three courses, listed here and in the Medieval Studies chapter of Courses of Instruction. These courses should cover three of the four core disciplinary areas of Arts, History, Literature and Language, and Thought and Religion. Each of these advanced courses must be offered by a different department, with the exception of Medieval Studies itself (all three courses can have a Medieval Studies number).

3. One elective course at any level, listed here and in the Medieval Studies chapter of Courses of Instruction.

Other Information

1.Pass/Fail: All five courses must be taken for a letter grade and passed with a B- or better, except for approved Freshman Seminars, which are graded SAT/UNS.

Summer School/Study Abroad: Courses offered through the Harvard Summer School, and course credits gained through study abroad programs will onlybe accepted for secondary field credit if they are on medieval topics and taught by members of the Medieval Studies faculty (e.g. Scandinavian S-150, "Study Abroad in Scandinavia"). Any enquiries about such courses should be addressed to the DUS of Medieval Studies, Sean Gilsdorf.

Other Harvard schools: Courses offered in Harvard schools other than FAS must be jointly offered in FAS to count toward the secondary field.