Medieval scholarship is at a remarkable moment of challenge and opportunity. The field is undergoing a transformation as scholars turn away from a narrow focus on Western Europe, recognizing that European developments cannot be understood in isolation from the wider world. Currents of mutual influence and exchange—as well as conflict—ranged far beyond the Mediterranean to include Islamic scholars in Timbuktu or debates over religion at the courts of the Mongol khans. The result is not only a richer understanding of our past but of the complex medieval origins of aspects of the contemporary world, not only sectarian differences but shared developments like institutions of higher learning and diplomacy. Further, critical comparative studies are now essential to our understandings of commonalities and distinctive developments, from studying the disintegration of empires through comparison of the Mayan and Carolingian civilizations, to the uses of writing practices like public inscriptions on stone, or comparative scribal cultures. This is important: contemporary events have underscored the pressing need for scholars to communicate to students and the broader public deeper understandings of the links and tensions among world cultures, understandings grounded in their long histories of interaction, influence and conflict. These understandings can no longer be Eurocentric. Yet ironically we are also experiencing a crisis in the humanities, a turning away from exactly the research and teaching needed to develop and convey those deeper understandings. This project addresses these concerns. It is shaped by our recognition of University of California’s responsibility to public education: we seek both to foster research with wide-reaching implications and to develop ways to make those new understandings accessible to educators as well as researchers.
The Middle Ages in the Wider World project opened on March 4, 2017 with a kickoff conference at UC Berkeley featuring a rousing keynote address by Carol Symes, founding editor of The Medieval Globe and Professor of History and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois. Over its first eighteen months, the initiative has galvanized faculty and graduate student researchers across the University of California system both to undertake original research connecting different global cultures in the millennium spanning 500 to 1500 CE and to found a new on-line journal, The Journal of Medieval Worlds, to be published by the University of California Press, to bring pedagogical materials, book and exhibit reviews, as well as original research articles to a global readership. Eight summer grants in 2017 funded work on five pedagogical resources for teaching the global Middle Ages, a digital template for comparative GIS data analysis, and two research projects comparing European religious texts and practices to those in Persia and India. Draft versions of four of these were presented at the October 13-14, 2017 workshop and conference on Interconnected Medieval Worlds at Santa Barbara, which also featured a keynote lecture by Peter Frankopan (Oxford University) as well a presentations by Geraldine Heng (University of Texas, Austin), Rudolph T. Ware (University of Michigan), Joan Piggott (University of Southern California), Brian Catlos (University of Colorado), and Michael North (University of Greifswald). Other funded projects were presented at the April 28, 2018 workshop at UC Davis on Medieval Worlds in the Classroom and the Text. which was enlivened by a keynote lecture by Shirin Khanmohamadi (San Francisco State University) on “From al-Andalus to Khorasan: Translating Empires of the Saracens in the Chansons de Geste.” A second round of three research grants were awarded for summer 2018 and will be presented in conjunction with the November 4, 2018 conference at UC Berkeley on Medieval Africa? Re-thinking Early African History in Comparative Perspectives.