James Ginther is a digital humanities scholar who uses computer programming and data mining to shed light on medieval times. Michael Swan

Medieval studies goes back for a better future

By 
  • February 29, 2020

The University of St. Michael’s College is better than good if you want to study that magical millennium between 500 and 1500.

“We’re the best,” St. Michael’s president and vice chancellor David Sylvester states.

Don’t dare contradict him. He’s got a 2019 review of the St. Michael’s medieval studies programs by an international panel of experts to back him up, and now a renewed relationship between St. Mike’s, the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies. In January, the three University of Toronto institutions signed a memorandum of understanding, committing them to collaborating in both research and teaching.

“This is the strongest undergraduate program in North America for medieval studies,” said Sylvester.

A medievalist himself, Sylvester touts the medieval studies program whenever he can. “Medieval studies is fun. It’s interesting. There’s an aesthetic, a beauty to the culture, the literature, the manuscripts,” he told The Catholic Register. “This is a really, really good first degree — because it’s fun, interesting. It gives you unbelievable transferable skills in languages and critical thinking and all the kinds of things we talk about.”

There’s more to this than the best parties on campus (Sylvester swears medieval studies parties are the best). It’s the catholic (and Catholic) nature of medieval studies that makes it such an incredible field of study, he said.

“Interdisciplinarity is natural and a common trait in any Catholic university around the world,” points out Sylvester. “Because that’s what Catholics do really, really well. Think of an integrated knowledge and formation of the whole person. We’re all pursuing truth, but we’re not pursuing the truth of history. We’re pursuing truth through history and through philosophy, etc.”

The medievalist dean of theology at St. Michael’s makes Sylvester’s point for him.

“The thing about medievalists is that we are trained as interdisciplinary scholars,” James Ginther said. “We are more than willing to listen to anyone who can offer help with our work.”

Ginther is a leading digital humanities scholar, who throughout his career has used big data, computer programming, data mining and online collaboration when bringing light to the dark ages. Over the last 20 years he’s brought in about $3.5 million in research grants — the kind of money most humanities professors never see.

“It’s not like paying attention to science is a new thing. We’ve been doing it for decades,” Ginther said. “Medievalists have been at the vanguard of digital humanities.”

The history of using computing power to understand the Middle Ages begins with Jesuit scholar Fr. Roberto Busa, who teamed up with IBM in 1946 to digitize, annotate and correlate the massive body of writing produced by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Ginther has used “linked open data models” in his work, which includes the “Electronic Grosseteste,” an online resource allowing scholars around the world to study the 13th-century Latin writing of Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste.

“Data visualization, image analysis — all this stuff is part and parcel for a modern medievalist,” Ginther said.

Medieval studies at St. Mike’s isn’t just about the dark, dusty past, particularly for undergraduates. Principal Randy Boyagoda — novelist and scholar of 20th-century American literature — runs the Gilson Seminar out of the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies. There, young students gather to make connections between the Thomistic philosophy that so fascinated philosopher Etienne Gilson and the development of 20th-century thought.

The ability to make those connections between science and the humanities, between modern and medieval, between cultures and languages and politics and economics is just the sort of thing that adds up to a genuine education, said Sylvester.

“Guess what? They (undergraduates) can go anywhere from that,” Sylvester said. “They can go to grad schools around the world — I can show you where they’re going — or they can go into any other professional program, law or whatever, and they have this tool kit. And they had fun doing it.”

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