The Center for Medieval Studies (CMS) at UMN was established in 1988 by professor Kathryn Reyerson. The Center began as an interdisciplinary space where several experts in medieval studies across the College of Liberal Arts at the University could collaborate on research projects and promote the study and investigation of the Middle Ages. The founding members of the Center, including Kathryn Reyerson, Rutherford Aris, Oliver Nicholson, Stephanie Van D’Elden, Donna Cardamore Jackson, J. Lawrence Mitchell and Bernard Bachrach were prescient in their commitment to openness to a variety of scholarly fields and approaches—encouraging (long before it was on most people’s radar) a scholarly dialogue between scholars of medieval Western Europe and scholars of Islam and the medieval Mediterranean, as well as promoting the use of the newest technological tools available to conduct research in Medieval Studies. Among the initial activities of the Center were the Colloquia Medievalia lecture series, a Medieval Film Series, and the organization of several high profile conferences and publications.
In its 28 years of existence, the Center has partnered with several Twin Cities institutions, such as the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Swedish Institute, as well as other UMN institutions such as the Weisman Art Museum, to bring to the public the newest in research on medieval culture and history. We have organized several international conferences and exhibits, including those on topics such as the vikings, Sutton Hoo, Islam in the West, women, strangers, crime, space, Bede, monasticism, cartography, conversion, religion, law, Mediterranean identities in the Middle Ages etc. In 2002 the Center established the Medieval Books K-12 Outreach Program, in which graduate students visit classes and let grade school children experience real medieval manuscripts from the Special Collections of UMN.
CMS also maintains long time relationships with both the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies in Chicago and with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St John’s University in Collegeville, MN. CMS established the Minnesota Manuscript Research Laboratory (MMRL) in 2004. MMRL allows graduate students and other specialists to work with manuscripts from the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library collection in conjunction with a specialist in medieval paleography, the rare book specialist at HMML, and the Assistant Director of the HMML collection to develop skills in the areas of text studies, text editing, palaeography and codicology.
Graduate students have played an important role in the cultural life of the Center for Medieval Studies which has historically and which continues to support their research in various ways, including specialized workshops where they acquire the skills necessary for conducting original research in manuscripts and archives. Such skills include not only paleography and codicology, a knowledge of ancient and medieval languages, but also—and perhaps less intuitively—a knowledge of the newest most modern technology and digital archiving systems. The Center has long supported graduate student reading groups in the languages of the Middle Ages including Latin, Old Norse, and Arabic.
Several people have contributed to shaping the nature and future of the Center over the course of the years, including Sheila McNally, Carl D. Shepperd, Malcolm Parkes, Calvin B. Kendall, Frank Akehurst (who gave the Center’s first lecture in fall 1988, “Old French Literature and the Law”), and Stephanie Van D’Elden. The Center’s first director, Prof. Reyerson has had an active role in shaping the profile of the Center and has returned on two occasions (2010–2011; fall 2015) to serve in the capacity of director in order to allows then directors the freedom to accept other positions or take leave.
The Center continued to prosper under subsequent directors, Barbara Hanawalt (1991-1997), Oliver Nicholson (1997–2002), Susan Noakes (2002–2008), Ruth Mazo Karras (2008–2010; 2011–12) and Andrew Scheil (2012-2015). Each hosted leading scholars and organized major conferences in a variety of fields—all falling under the idea of the interdisciplinary Middle Ages that has defined the Center since its inception. The Center has been host to hundreds of international and American scholars from a wide variety of fields, many leaders in their respective fields and in the field of Medieval Studies.
The Center made the move from its then offices in Nolte Hall on the East Bank across the river to its current location in Heller Hall in 2011, where it shares space with the Center for Early Modern History. In recent years, particularly under the leadership of Andrew Scheil, CMS has developed (in partnership with CEMH and the Bell Library) the research and pedagogical possibilities of a globalized study of the Middle Ages within the context of the entire “premodern world,” continuing and enhancing in many ways the interdisciplinary and global perspectives that have defined CMS since its inception. Scheil’s vision was central in securing a three-and a half-year $600,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to found a “Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World” (CSPW) in December 2013. This global perspective is central to the ethos and activities of the Center as we move forward.