What's Old is New

Professor Susan Noakes finds connections between the Middle Ages and today
By Linda Shapiro

Noakes.jpgThere was a time when Susan Noakes had to send her graduate students to the subbasement annex of Wilson Library to get 19th-century books out of storage for her French Literature and the Crusades course. The books--French poems about the Crusades--were so old, they crumbled in students' hands. That was before 9/11. Now this material has been reissued in France in fresh new paperbacks. Noakes says it's one sign of the resurgence of interest in all things medieval, especially contact among diverse cultures.

A medievalist and professor of French and Italian, Noakes is on a mission to bring the 12th century into the 21st. Her research has shown that hot-button issues such as ethnic displacement, immigration, religious tolerance, and global interconnectedness were as incendiary 10 centuries ago as they are today. Now she is leading the Scholarly Community for the Globalization of the Middle Ages (SCGMA) in an effort to reconfigure medieval studies through innovative initiatives that encompass everything from crunching data in giant computers to bringing scholars together across a broad international spectrum.

Noakes's work on the sites of cultural exchange among Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the medieval Mediterranean is an example of the scholarship that has enlivened the field and made it relevant to contemporary students in a multicultural world. East Asia, for example, was once studied mostly in terms of its products carried along the Silk Road and through the Middle East during the Crusades; now it is now increasingly explored for its powerful and complex cultural and economic influence on Europe.

The presence of Muslim Arabs and Jews on Sicily in the 10th and 11th centuries is an early example of this influence, says Noakes. These populations interacted successfully for generations before the Norman invasion in 1060. Eventually, however, the Normans became nervous about these "others," driving the Muslims off the island and onto mainland Italy around 1200. "According to one school of historical thought, the economic decline of Sicily dates from that removal because the Muslims and Jews were learned, multilingual, skilled artisans and traders," Noakes says.

She also notes the importance of Muslims in works of medieval French literature like La Chanson de Roland that explore not only the conflict between Muslims and Christians but also issues of intermarriage, conversion, and competing cultural ideas. In La Chanson de Guilliaume, for example, the adventurous Guilliaume journeys from southern to northern France and along the Mediterranean coast, encountering many Muslims as well as Jews. "Issues such as the relative strength and moral character of Muslims and Christians are examined," says Noakes. "They come from a multicultural France in the 12th and 13th centuries. People in that period were investigating differences among French Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It's important for students to know that, given current issues of immigration and the rise of religious fanaticism and new anti-Semitism."

In fact, medieval studies is so hot these days that it has entered the rarefied realm of the supercomputer.

In November 2007 Noakes, who was in her sixth and final year as director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Medieval Studies (CMS), and Geraldine Heng, director of the medieval studies program at the University of Texas, assembled specialists from all over the world to talk about how to globalize medieval studies. The group included medievalists like Noakes and Heng who study European culture, historians and archaeologists who study places like Sudanic Africa, and specialists in humanities computing. The group discovered that it needed to develop an infrastructure that would allow huge bodies of data in different languages to be organized in ways that have both depth and breadth--what Noakes calls "a thick global texture."

Enter Kevin Franklin, executive director of the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (I-CHASS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Impressed by the diversity of the workshop and SCGMA members' eagerness to apply computer technology to their scholarship, Franklin encouraged Noakes to provide a model for other humanities initiatives.

It became a perfect storm of artificial intelligence and medieval studies: scholars who wanted to provide an infrastructure for the several hundred thousand manuscripts and data scattered all over the world; the support of I-CHASS; and the help of Fermilab, a national science laboratory in Illinois with plans to build what will be the largest computer in the world. Fermilab's computer, says Noakes, will be used for petascale computing, which she describes as "crunching larger amounts of data and analyzing big problems."

Noakes credits CLA dean James A. Parente, who specializes in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with encouraging her in this vast undertaking. "Without his learned presence and vision, I would not have pursued this project," says Noakes. Likewise, Parente praises Noakes's initiative and innovation as director of the CMS. "Susan's work is in keeping with the University's mission to put teaching in a global context," he says. He also mentions her innovation in developing a K-12 outreach program that brings graduate students, medieval manuscripts, swan quills, and gold leaf into Twin Cities classrooms.

Indeed, attracting more students to medieval studies is one of Noakes's goals. "Gerry Heng and I realized early on that the globalization movement would have to engage the affection many young people feel for warfare and knights, often leading them to learn something of the period through visual and digital technologies, says Noakes. "So many students develop an interest in the Middle Ages through movies like Lord of the Rings and video games like Oblivion. We must capture and build on that interest, rather than look down our scholarly noses at it."

History is a living force that affects our lives, says Noakes. "We all use our history. We define ourselves in terms of our past, or against our past."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on January 30, 2009 9:49 AM.

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