A medieval confluence

Three new assistant professors at Penn—Music’s Mary Channen Caldwell, History of Art’s Sarah Guérin, and History’s Ada Maria Kuskowski—all focus on medieval studies, specifically the 13th-century in France. Photo by Eric Sucar.

Three newly-hired Penn assistant professors, all transplants to Philadelphia, found each other soon after they arrived and discovered that, although they were in different areas of study, they all focused on the Middle Ages, specifically 13th-century France. 

Music’s Mary Channen Caldwell, History of Art’s Sarah Guérin, and History’s Ada Maria Kuskowski are also all about the same age, and all are from Canada. 

“It just seems somehow serendipitous,” Caldwell says. “It is exceedingly rare, this kind of collective of medievalists, in the same point in their careers, exploring one moment in time.” 

Coincidence? Perhaps, but also indicative of this moment when the study of the Middle Ages is coalescing across the University.

New this academic year is an interdisciplinary minor in global medieval studies, bringing together courses in 11 departments involving more than 50 professors. The director and creator of the program is Julia Verkholantsev, undergraduate chair of Russian and East European Studies. She is now establishing a graduate- certificate program, and hopes to create a major as well.

English Professor David Wallace was recently elected as president of the Medieval Academy of America, and Penn will be the site for the international conference in March next year, expected to draw more than 500 scholars from across the globe.

And Caldwell, Guérin and Kuskowski, quickly becoming friends as well as colleagues, banded together to organize at Penn an international symposium on the Gothic Arts, held at the Penn Libraries March 23 and 24. Focused on 13th-century France, panelists included scholars from Penn and more than a dozen other universities in the United States and abroad. 

 “Penn is a wonderful place to pursue medieval studies, and we are a community that is going to really embrace interdisciplinary work on the Middle Ages,” Caldwell says. 


Ada Maria Kuskowski is an expert in medieval law and history. Photo by Eric Sucar.

Verkholantsev says Penn is a “medievalists’ paradise.” And yet Penn doesn’t have a center or a major in medieval studies, and only last fall established a formal course of study with the minor. Even so, the quality and quantity of the faculty is world renowned, Wallace says. 

“Penn has been highly regarded for medieval studies for a very long time—more than a century,” Wallace says. “Penn medievalists may lack a brick and mortar center, but we and our graduate students continually talk laterally across university space.”  

In addition, Penn Libraries, home to the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, holds important medieval texts often used by students and faculty. Several projects are underway to digitize and make publically available many rare materials in the collection, which has also bolstered Penn’s medieval profile.

In an effort to formalize medieval studies, Verkholantsev applied to the School of Arts and Sciences curriculum committee a year ago to establish the minor. 

“The idea was to create a program to unite all faculty specialists and all the courses,” she says. Critical, she believed, was to make the minor global in scope, to encompass the period from Late Antiquity up to 1700. 

The minor is “a very exciting development,” Wallace says. It is possible to study comparable societies across the globe in the period before the Renaissance and preceding the dominance of a few Western powers, he says. 

“The Middle Ages represents the last period in which this form of globalism can be so studied; it will thus interest the widest range of students, embracing Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, from legendary Camelot to the historical Empire of Mali,” he says.    


Mary Channen Caldwell is an expert in vocal music of the medieval period. Photo by Eric Sucar.

Interest by Penn students is clear, Verkholantsev says, noting that more than 1,000 students in the College of Arts and Sciences are enrolled in the dozens of courses that focus on pre-modern content. 

In fact, the 10 students who have declared the minor have already met the requirements: six courses in at least three fields – either history; art, architecture, or music; literature or written culture; religion, philosophy, or science – and geographically at least one course on Europe and one on an area outside of Europe. 

Verkholantsev had been thinking about working to establish the minor since she came to Penn 15 years ago, but the timing just seemed right with the arrival of new faculty.

“It was a gift given by fate, that these three new medievalists were hired,” she says. “There was this momentum, there was this hope of medieval studies being developed into much more.” 

Several other faculty have come to Penn in the two years since the trio arrived, she says, including Byzantinist Ivan Drpić in History of Art, Christopher Atwood in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Huda Fakhreddine in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Wallace agrees. “Mary, Sarah, and Ada provide a great deal of the energy and fresh inspiration for our global medieval initiatives,” he says. “They involve themselves, and their students, with material objects, sonic landscapes, and legal traditions as well as with texts.” 

The three are enthusiastic supporters of the new minor, and each teaches classes that qualify. 


Sarah Guérin is an expert in medieval ivory carving. Photo by Eric Sucar.

Caldwell, from Ontario, is a specialist in secular and sacred vocal music of the medieval period and the cultural practices around song, especially devotional song. She is currently teaching “Introduction to European Art Music” and a freshman seminar, “Hearing the Middle Ages.”  

Guerin, from Saskatchewan, is an expert in medieval ivory carving and focuses on the material conditions of medieval art. This semester she is teaching “Gothic Architecture: Gold + Stone,” and “Migrating Materiality: Ivory Around the Mediterranean.” 

Kuskowski, from Quebec, specializes in medieval law and history and the history of language as it relates to those institutions, which she describes as “what happens to a world when you start writing down your laws and learning how to follow them.”  

This semester she is teaching “Discover the Middle Ages” and “War and Conquest in Medieval Europe." She also teaches courses on the Vikings, the Inquisition, medieval law and love, and violence in the Middles Ages."  

“We all do very different sorts of work, but we want to think about what we do more broadly,” Kuskowski says. 

The Gothic Arts symposium was meant to do just that, to discover the links among various areas of study in a particular time and place. 

“Is there more in common here than chronological and geographical confluence?” Guérin says. “We gathered interesting people here to help us start answering that question.” 

Nearly 100 signed up for the two-day symposium at Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, and many students attended throughout the event as well. 

“We have some wonderful new hires in the field of medieval studies across the departments,” said William Noel, director of the Kislak Center, at the symposium’s opening. “Medievalism scholarship here at this moment is truly inspired and truly wonderful to be a part of.”


Director of the Penn Libraries' Kislak Center, William Noel, gave the opening address at the Gothic Arts Symposium. Photo by Louisa Shepard.