Click on any image below to view larger and read the caption.
A History of Medieval Studies at Cornell
The first Cornell medievalist was Andrew Dickson White, co-founder of the university (1865), who served as its first president for nearly two decades. White’s interest in the medieval period manifested itself already as a teenager. In 1840, at the age of seventeen, he wrote an essay on “the crusades” while a student at the Ballston Spa School in New York.
White received an M.A. in history from Yale and was Professor of History and English literature at the University of Michigan from 1858-1863. During his tenure as Cornell’s president (1866-1885), White was a professor in the History Department and he regularly offered a survey of world history that covered the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution, with special attention to England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Middle East. Twenty-two of the sixty-two lectures in the survey dealt with the medieval period. Topics covered included feudalism, the Crusades, the rise of cities, chivalry, monarchism, the papacy, commerce, science, law, the working classes, cathedral builders and sculpture
White traveled extensively in Europe, where he acquired many books and precious objects, including a corbel from the cathedral in Troyes purchased in 1886.
Corbel from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Troyes, ca. 1210–40, transferred from the Cornell Library to the Johnson Museum in 2002
He was also an avid photographer and he used his pictures to enhance his lectures. On January 15, 1883, White gave an informal talk on medieval architecture in Elmira, New York.
Picture of Westminster Abbey from A.D. White Collection of Architectural Photographs: King Edward’s Coronation Chair (1297-1300)
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, #15-5-3090
White brought William Channing Russel to Cornell as professor of modern languages and history. In his survey course, “Lectures in History,” Russel devoted considerable attention to the medieval period. By contrast to White, he taught that Christian civilization is inherently superior to Islamic civilization, as purportedly recognized by Muslims themselves in the thirteenth century. His attitude emerges clearly in a lecture on Saint Louis of France delivered on November 7, 1871:
“The Mamelukes of Egypt were so impressed by King Louis IX [of France] that [during his crusade] they desired him to lead them and become the king of Egypt…. Louis was a true man, noble and unselfish [who] lived in the belief of keeping the sacred places in possession of the Christians. If he had spent the recovery that he used for this object upon the civilization of the French, he would have benefited humanity much more.”
Between 1870 and 1879, Russel served as Vice-President of Cornell, and, for more than two years, from June 1879 until August 1881, he served as Acting President of the university while White was serving as the American ambassador to Germany.
A third medievalist was James Morgan Hart (1839-1916), who earned a doctorate in civil and canon law from the University of Göttingen. In 1868, after working as a lawyer in New York City, Hart was appointed Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at Cornell. He retired as Full Professor in 1907. He worked closely with the Early English Text Society, founded in 1864 with the goal of printing “all that was most valuable of the yet unprinted MSS. in English.” Hart was an authority on English philology and the evolution of language, which, at the time, represented the most rigorously “scientific” mode of literary scholarship. In 1874, he published German Universities: A Narrative of Personal Experience (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons). In his view, German universities were superior to their American counterparts:
“The German method of higher education is far better than our own. The German student is much more thoroughly trained [than the American student, especially in philology and history,] if by history we mean in all sincerity the formation of national character and habits, and not merely the chronicle of battles and court intrigues.”
Hart was fond of German academic rituals and their medieval spirit:
“[During public disputations] the candidate stands on the platform like the knights of the Middle Ages, ready to maintain the merits of his lady-love. His antagonists are his friends […] The Dean pronounces [the champion] a true and worthy knight of science […] The real test of the candidate’s merit is his dissertation, which has been read in print beforehand by each member of the faculty, and which must be a substantial contribution to knowledge […] No words of mine, I fear, will do justice to the part played in the university by the Privatdocenten [sic] [teaching assistants] [who can] startle you with their knowledge of Sanskrit roots and their familiarity with university slang, but all with a quiet, unassuming, gentlemanly air.”
Hart is remembered as “an influential voice in shaping graduate studies in U.S. universities based on German practice” (Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, 2016).
Hart donated his personal library to Cornell and it was “placed in the room which was for many years his office, and was known as the Hart Memorial Library” in Goldwin Smith Hall (Princeton Alumni Weekly, 17:5 [November 1916], p. 126).
Portrait, oil, artist J. C. Forbes. In vault, Uris Library.
Let us not overlook Thomas Frederick Crane, also known as Teefy and Vinegar Crane (1844-1927), a lawyer and polyglot with a strong interest in the Middle Ages. As Crane explains in “How I Became a Professor” (Cornell Era 1909), he received his early education in Ithaca, and later matriculated at Princeton University and Columbia Law School. He returned to Ithaca after a close relative became ill and worked in the law office of Francis Miles Finch (later, Dean of Cornell Law School); in May 1866 he was admitted to the bar. Crane had a passion for European languages. One day his friend Alonzo B. Cornell, Chairman of the Tompkins County Republicans (and Ezra Cornell’s son), suggested that he apply for a professorship at the university. Initially, A.D. White was not keen on the idea. But in the summer of 1868, after learning that Willard Fiske would not return to Cornell from Europe until January 1869, White asked Crane to take responsibility for teaching German. During the fall of 1868, Crane supervised the German examination (held in the basement of the library) for entering students, taught a German literature course on Nathan der Weise (1779), and participated in a faculty meeting in Ezra Cornell’s office.
In 1869 Crane spent nine months in Germany, first at Berlin University, where he worked on Spanish, Italian, and Provençal, and then at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, where he studied medieval texts and storybooks. He returned to Ithaca in the fall of 1869 and was appointed assistant professor of Italian and Spanish (he also taught French); in 1872 he was promoted to full professor; in 1881 he became Professor of Romance Languages; and in 1884 he became Chair of the Department of Romance Languages (renamed Romance Studies in 1965). His first scholarly publication was a short lecture, “Medieval Sermon-Books and Stories” (American Folk-lore Society 1883). Crane was co-founder of the Journal of American Folk-lore and served on its board between 1888 and 1892. He had a special interest in medieval religious tales – many of them embedded in sermons – which he regarded as storehouses of information on the manners and mores of different nations and peoples. His devotion to oral literature is described by Jack D. Zipes as follows:
“Crane believed deeply that the oral tradition of the people had been unduly neglected in the study of literature… Throughout his life, he excavated and recuperated neglected tales, stories, poems and songs that provided evidence of customs and mores of the people in specific societies at particular times.” [Introduction to Crane, Italian Popular Tales (2003; originally printed New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1885)].
Crane also produced meticulous editions of Latin texts, including the Exempla of Cardinal Jacques de Vitry (ca. 1180-1240) (London: Folk-lore Society, 1890) and a little-known but important 12th century text, Liber de Miraculis Sanctae Dei Genitricis Mariae (Paris 1657; repr. Vienna, 1731; repr. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1925). He was the author of Le Romantisme français: A Selection from Writers of the French Romantic School, 1824-1848. Edited for the Use of Schools and Colleges (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1887) and Italian Social Customs of the 16th Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920).
Crane served as the first Dean of the Arts College (1896-1902), Acting President of Cornell (1900-1901), and Dean of the Cornell Faculty (1902-1909). He was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1927. He bequeathed to Cornell his personal library, which included a 1474 printed copy of Sermones de Tempore by the Polish Silesian Peregrinus de Opole and a 1504 edition of the lectures and sermons of the Franciscan preacher Pelbartus de Temeswar (Rumania, 1430-1504).
Crane is memorialized in the Cornell fight song, “Give My Regards to Davy,” written in 1905 by three undergraduates and set to the tune of George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway.” The song opens with the phrase, “Give my regards to Davy/Remember me to Teefy Crane”. The reference is to a fictional encounter between an anonymous student and David Fletcher “Davy” Hoy (for whom Hoy Field is named), the registrar and secretary for the committee on student conduct, and Thomas Frederick “Tee Fee” Crane, the first Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The encounter was triggered by the student’s expulsion on account of binge drinking. Hoy was known for his ferocity as a strict disciplinarian, and Crane, although generally well liked by students, earned the nickname ‘Vinegar Crane’ for his strict enforcement of university policy on alcohol consumption.
Thomas Frederick Crane (left) and David (“Davy”) Hoy, c. 1910.
White, Russel, Hart, and Crane conveyed their enthusiasm for the Middle Ages to their students. Under White’s tutelage, one student, George Lincoln Burr, became a distinguished scholar of medieval and Renaissance history. After Burr graduated from Cornell, White made arrangements for him to travel to Europe in order to deepen his knowledge of medieval history. Young American students were attracted to Germany to study with the likes of Leopold von Ranke (whose library and desk were later acquired by Syracuse University) and to learn the new wissenschaftlich or scientific method that ostensibly made it possible to reconstruct history as it actually occurred (wie es eigentlich geschehen ist). It is estimated that, in the 1890s, more than half of all American historians had trained in Germany.
Portrait of George Lincoln Burr, n.d., Uris Library
In October 1884, Burr began his “Grand Tour” to complete his academic training and to work in European libraries and archives. Over the next three years, he visited Leipzig, Halle, Dresden, and Berlin; Vienna and Salzburg; Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Paestum, Assisi, Perugia, Sienna, Florence, Bologna, Parma, Ravenna, Venice, Padua, Verona, Bergamo, Pavia and Milan; Lausanne, Geneva, Zürich and St. Gallen; Strassburg, Freiburg, Trier, Reims, Paris, Provins, and Troyes; London, Oxford, and Dover; Trier (again), Mainz, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Aachen; Basel and Zürich (again). His correspondence with Andrew Dickson White and his diary are important sources of information about debates within the historical profession over new teaching methods and other topics.
“Here I am at last, settled and at work…. The program of lectures here for the ensuing term is in history exceedingly attractive. Looking over the Universitätskalendar, I find nothing elsewhere — not even in Berlin – to compare with it in the field of modern history, political and social [as well as] the history of art […] [including] the tempting courses of Voigt and Arndt and Wenck in medieval history… It is hard to choose: if only one could hear it all!”
[Georg Voigt (1827-91) was one of the founders of modern research on the Italian Renaissance. Wilhelm Arndt (1838-95) was an historian who participated in the collection of manuscripts for the Monumenta Germaniæ Historica. Karl Robert Wenck (1854-1927) was a distinguished church historian and librarian at Halle.]
First letter from Burr to Andrew D. White, October 10, 1884
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts,
George Lincoln Burr Papers, 14-17-22, box 1, folder 13
Burr was fascinated by the debate between traditional historians who studied national laws and institutions and the new cultural historians who sought to provide a “panoramic” view of society and who studied ceremony, class, and small-scale local conditions – with special attention to non-elite groups. In a letter from Leipzig dated Oct. 30 1884, Burr wrote:
“Professor Maurenbrecher, the new Professor Ordinarius of History, called from Bonn to fill the chair of von Noorden, delivered his Antritts-Rede [inaugural class] in the aula [lecture hall] last Saturday, taking as his theme “History and Politics”. It was well-written, but, as it seemed to me, quite unnecessarily dogmatic in spirit, as well as very conservative in tone. He took occasion to parade his extreme Prussian and Junker sympathies, as well as to deliver a back-handed blow at “so-called Culturgeschichte” [which was addressed to a wider audience] in the best manner of the Fachgenossen [specialists writing for specialists]… He thinks that Culturgeschichte should be treated, but always as subordinate to political and as a part of national history; the State, as such, should always have the first place.” (14-17-22, box 1, folder 14).
[Wilhelm Maurenbrecher (1838-92) was an historian of Protestantism and the Catholic Reformation who was known for his “objectivity”. The goal of the Leipzig history seminar that he led was to train a select group of doctoral students in the methodologies of source criticism. The seminar had been founded in 1877 by Carl von Noorden.]
Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904) was born in Ellisburg, New York. He studied at Cazenovia Seminary, Hamilton College, and Uppsala University in Sweden, where he developed an interest in Old Norse sagas. He also studied medieval manuscripts for several weeks in Wolfenbüttel at the Herzog August Bibliothek, which, he said, was “a sort of Mecca to me.” In Sweden and Denmark, Fiske acquired the first volumes of what would become a large collection of Icelandic books and manuscripts which, down to the present, is surpassed only by the collections of the Royal Library in Copenhagen and the National Library in Reykjavík. Fiske went on to serve as Assistant Librarian at the Astor Library in New York (1852-59); General Secretary and Archivist to the American Geographical Society (1859-60); attaché to the U.S. Legation in Vienna (1861-62); editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal (1863-65); a book-dealer in Syracuse (1866); and correspondent for the Hartford Courant — in which capacity he covered the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
In 1868, A.D. White appointed Fiske as Cornell’s first University Librarian and as Professor of German and Northern European Languages. In 1880, Fiske married Jennie McGraw, daughter of John McGraw, millionaire philanthropist. Ms. McGraw suffered from tuberculosis and she died in 1881 shortly after the wedding. Fiske used his inheritance to purchase an elegant villa in Fiesole, Italy (near Florence) and to build a first-class collection of manuscripts and books by and about Dante and Petrarch. The collection included the first printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Foligno, 1472); a lovely illuminated manuscript of Petrarch’s Trionfi and Sonnetti (ca. 1465), with the coat of arms of the Albanian/Venetian Skënderbeu/Scanderbeg family; a copy (on vellum) of the 1501 Aldine edition of the Cose volgari di Messer Francesco Petrarca, acquired from the collection of the Churchill family in Blenheim Castle; and a second edition of De remediis utriusque fortunae (Heidelberg, ca. 1490), which subsequently would be characterized by Cornell Professor Morris Bishop as “the most medieval of Petrarch’s works.”
Fiske also collected materials written in Rhaeto-Romance, the language spoken in northern and north-eastern Italy and Switzerland. His bibliography of Dante’s works appeared in reports of the Dante Society (Cambridge, Mass.) between 1887 and 1890. In his last will and testament, he bequeathed 32,000 volumes to the Cornell Library. (See Christian Y. Dupont, “Collecting Dante from Tuscany: The Formation of the Fiske Dante Collection at Cornell University,” Studies in Bibliography, 58 (2007/2008), 185-210; and Patrick J. Stevens, “Willard Fiske: The Passionate Collector,” Cornell Library exhibition web site, 2005 http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/collector/]
Fragment of Petrarch’s Tunic, from his Tomb, Acquired by Fiske for Cornell in the 1880s
Handwritten Caption: “Brano della tunica di F. Petrarca da una tolta dall’urna
il 24 maggio 1843 quando la restaurai,” Signed by Archaeologist Carlo Leoni (1812-72)
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections,
Petrarch Collection #4648 Box 1
Let us return to Burr, himself a skilled and talented librarian who assembled the first comprehensive collection of books and trial records relating to European witchcraft held by an American university. On the margins of these rare books, one finds, in his handwriting, notes in which he explains the importance of a book, its usefulness for teaching and research, and his own sometimes poignant observations. The following note is found in a book printed in 1471 that he had acquired in Trier:
“This is the first edition of the Fortalitium Fidei of the apostate Spanish Jew Alphonsus de Spina, and is the earliest printed book dealing with the subject of witchcraft, to which the closing portion of the work is devoted. […] It may be interesting to know that the lessons of the witchcraft portion were not wasted on the monks of St. Maximin [in Trier]. Nowhere in all Europe did the persecutions of these unfortunates rage with greater virulence than within the jurisdiction of this old abbey [founded in the 4th century] during the last decades of the 16th century. From its twenty villages or so hundreds went to the stake […] Remembering this, and the part which this volume may have taken in suggesting it, one can hardly turn these pages without a shudder” (Cornell Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, BT1100 A45++).
Burr’s most spectacular acquisition for Cornell was a superb mid-fifteenth century illuminated Lombardino gradual – a gradual is a compendium of all the musical pieces in the Catholic mass, omitting the spoken parts. The text is bound with wooden plates, covered with deerskin, and decorated with bronze bosses and spikes (hence, its nickname, “Mr. Spiky”).
Lombard Gradual Received in 1891
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts 4600 Bd. Ms. 20+++
Burr was an expert on the relationship between science and theology, philology, and historiography. But his teaching was even more wide-ranging. A good example is his examination notes for an Old English class.
Examination Notes for an Old English Class, 1887
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts,
George Lincoln Burr Papers, 14-17-22, box 2
Included in Burr’s surviving papers are five dissertations written by his students. One dissertation, “Report on Cistercian Daemonology,” was submitted on June 10, 1916 by Bertram F. Willcox, who later became Professor at the Cornell Law School. Another dissertation, “The Relations of the English Benedictine Monasteries to the Papacy in the 13th Century,” was submitted in 1917 by Alfred H. Sweet, who was appointed Professor of English History at Cornell in 1918.
Some of Burr’s students were women, and he frequently ate dinner at the women’s dining hall to demonstrate his support for female education. He was erudite and well liked:
“Everybody loved Burr, a bit elfin, true, but the most learned man I ever knew and one of the most endearing” (letter from Morris Bishop to Willem van Loon, 24 August 1965, Cornell Library).
“The Relations of the English Benedictine Monasteries to the Papacy in the 13th Century,” dissertation submitted in 1917 by Alfred H. Sweet
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts,
George Lincoln Burr Papers, 14-17-22, box 2
Between 1925 and 1930, Cornell hired two medieval historians: Max Ludwig Wolfram Laistner and Carl Stephenson.
Laistner (B.A., Cambridge 1912; British School of Athens, 1913-1914) came to Cornell in 1925 as Professor of Ancient History. The son of a London-based German pianist, he was fluent in six languages and specialized in classics, ancient history, and early medieval intellectual history. One of his monographs, Thought and Letters in Western Europe AD 500 to 900 (New York: L. MacVeagh, Dial Press, 1931), became a classic and went through several print editions. Laistner also published impeccable editions of treatises by Isocrates and the Venerable Bede. He was known for his conservative views and demeanor. In 1926, his mother joined him in Ithaca and the two lived together. Laistner never learned how to drive a car and he refused to listen to the radio.
Portrait of M.L. W. Laistner
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Faculty Folders
Maximilian Laistner, Notes on Beda Venerabilis, ca. 1940
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts,
Laistner Papers 14-17-442, box 6
Carl Stephenson (B.A. Harvard 1914) came to Cornell in 1930 after teaching at Harvard, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Princeton, and Washington. He was an authority on the growth of towns during the Middle Ages.
Portrait of Carl Stephenson
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Faculty Folders
His textbook, “Medieval History: Europe from the Fourth to the Sixteenth Century,” was widely used for decades. In 1944, the U.S. Army published a paperback edition with a print run of 25,000 copies, for distribution to American soldiers, presumably to facilitate their understanding of European society.
Mediaeval history, Published for the United States Armed Forces Institute by Harper & Brothers, 1944
Imprimatur of General Marshall
Cornell University, Olin Library D117.S83 M4 1944
Many distinguished medievalists visited Cornell to deliver lectures, including Eileen Power, the first female professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and a visiting professor at Barnard College. Power was the author of Medieval Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge University Press, 1924) and Medieval People (Cambridge University Press, 1926). In 1930 the Goldwin Smith Foundation sponsored a series of lectures, including one by Power on “Medieval Women.”
“Power Talks on Medieval Women”
Eileen Power’s Talk in the Cornell Sun
In 1937, fifteen professors in the College of Arts and Sciences established the “Friends of Medieval Studies” committee, composed of faculty in the departments of German, Classics, Architecture, English, Romance Languages, Music, History, and Philosophy. The goal of the committee was “to maintain Cornell’s acknowledged leadership in a field of increasing significance.” According to the Cornell Alumni News, 39:34 (1937), “[The Friends of Medieval Studies] will concern itself with extending [the splendid library] collection and with fostering research. Those who are trying to see through the tangled confused mess of modern society will appreciate the importance of this movement to study the society out of which modern society has grown.”
Two Cornell professors, Clark Sutherland Northup and Harry Caplan, although not medievalists in the strict sense of the word, were strong supporters of medieval studies.
Clark S. Northup was born in Edmeston, NY in 1872, received his B.A. (1893) and Ph.D. (1898) from Cornell, and spent his entire professional career in the Cornell English Department as Assistant Instructor (1895), Instructor (1897), Assistant Professor (1903), Professor (1919), and Professor Emeritus (1940). Northup’s scholarship focused on Victorian authors, especially Elisabeth Gaskell and Robert Browning. But he had a strong interest in medieval literature. Indeed, his first publication was a scientific edition of a fifteenth-century Latin manuscript fragment, the Dialogus Inter Corpus et Animam (Baltimore: Publications of the Modern Language Association, v. 16; pp. 503-525, 1901). The manuscript had been acquired in Trier for A.D. White by G.L. Burr, who described the text as “a vision of Hell, as seen by the soul of the Rich Man” (Kroch Library 4600 Bd Ms. 287+). In the 1920s and 1930s Northup regularly taught “Arthurian Legends.” He was one of the first members of the Medieval Academy of America, founded in Cambridge, Mass, in 1925, and he published many book reviews on medieval literature. It was Northup who established the Hart Memorial Library in Morrill Hall, much used by students.
Another strong supporter of medieval studies was Harry Caplan (1896-1980), an expert on rhetoric and homiletics. Caplan was born in Hoag’s Corner, New York. In 1913, at the age of seventeen, he matriculated at Cornell, where he wrote a Master’s thesis on “A History of the Jews in the Roman Province of Africa: A Collection of the Sources.” He received his doctorate in 1921. Two years earlier, on March 27, 1919, Caplan received the following letter from four members of the Classics Department who tried to dissuade him from pursuing a career in the academy:
“My dear Caplan: I want to second Professor Bristol’s advice and urge you to get into secondary teaching. The opportunities for college positions, never too many, are at present few and likely to be fewer. I can encourage no one to look forward to securing a college post. There is, moreover, a very real prejudice against the Jew. Personally, I do not share this, and I am sure the same is true of all our staff here. But we have seen so many well-equipped Jews fail to secure appointments that this fact has been forced upon us. . . . I feel it is wrong to encourage anyone to devote himself to the higher walks of learning to whom the path is barred by an undeniable racial prejudice. In this I am joined by all my Classical colleagues, who have authorized me to append their signatures with my own to this letter. (Signed)
Charles E. Bennet, C.L. Durham, George S. Bristol, E.P. Andrews.
The letter was found on Caplan’s desk in Rockefeller Hall following his death in 1980. It is now kept in the University Archives. It was cited for the first time by Martin Bernal (Government and Near Eastern Studies) in his Black Athena (Rutgers University Press, 1987).
Undeterred, Caplan managed to secure a position in the Department of Public Speaking between 1919 and 1923. In 1924 he was hired by the Classics Department and, for many years, he was the only tenured Jewish professor in the Ivy League. He is best known for his excellent edition and translation, with notes, of the Rhetorica ad Herennium for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard 1954), a treatise on rhetoric that was widely used in medieval schools.
Caplan spent his entire academic career at Cornell, from his M.A. in 1917 until his retirement in 1967. Except for six months in Spain and Austria in the 1930s (studying medieval manuscripts) and a couple of visiting professorships at American universities, Caplan rarely left Ithaca. He was jovial, a beloved teacher and an avid sports fan. According to a column in the Cornell Alumni News (1962):
“[Caplan’s] office hours begin late in the morning, but continue until late at night, and it is not unusual for his students to take their evening coffee break in the [so-called] Caplan corner of the Goldwin Smith south wing”.
Harry Caplan with Three Students during His Office Hours
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Faculty Folders
In 1938, student interest in medieval studies was strong. In the History Department, four graduate students were writing dissertations on the following topics relating to medieval England: Anglo-Saxon Lordship, legislation, public works, and public debates. Also in 1938 Laistner prepared a report in which he appealed for additional financial resources to increase the number of graduate fellowships and to purchase historical documents.
Excerpt from Laistner’s “Report on the Present State of Historical Research in Cornell University and on its Future Needs”:
“I shall attempt to indicate in what fields the historical material in the Cornell library is good or adequate and in which it is insufficient […] To the humanist the University library is what the laboratory is to the scientific inquirer […] in English medieval history, the library is probably better than any in this country except Harvard […] In the particular branch of ecclesiastical history the Cornell Library has many deficiencies […] The needs are especially noted, to acquire large collections of sources that are now lacking such as the Ordonnances des rois de France [and] a decent collection of paleographical works […] The two sets of documents that are most urgently needed by the professor of Medieval History and his graduate students would together cost about $1,000 […] Cornell needs more graduate fellowships:] every year there are first class applicants in History who are lost to Cornell simply because the number of available fellowships and assistant-ships is too small.”
In 1940 the officers of the “Friends of Medieval Studies” issued another report in which they announced a plan to work with the University Librarian “to fill serious gaps in the present collections of legal records, social documents of various sorts, periodicals, and books, which cut across departmental lines, to provide materials needed for study” (Cornell Library Records, 13-11-1082, box 113). They had a strong ally in Dr. Otto Kinkeldey, Cornell Librarian from 1930 to 1946, and the author of articles on the history of musical notation and on the challenges associated with printing music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The outbreak of World War II took Cornell students of medieval studies to unexpected places. One of these students, Barber Benjamin Conable (1922-2003) from Warsaw, NY, received his B.A. in 1942 and then enlisted in the United States Marines. Conable was sent to the Pacific front, where he learned to speak Japanese and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. After the war, he earned an L.L.B. from Cornell Law School (1948), re-enlisted in the Army and fought in the Korean War. He later became an influential Republican Party politician who represented upstate New York in the House of Representatives from 1965 until 1985. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed Conable as President of the World Bank. Let there be no doubt that medieval studies can prepare students for the real world!
In the 1950s, Cornell Library acquired important medieval texts that were donated by generous alumni. Frederik S. Crofts (‘05), the CEO of a company that published college textbooks and dictionaries, gave the university a manuscript of Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia, the only known manuscript that includes a (posthumous) portrait of the author. Another alum, William Gerhard Mennen (‘08), who had inherited his father’s shaving preparations and personal-care-products business, gave Cornell a rare 15th century book of hours composed in Latin and Dutch.
Illuminated Leaf from Gervase of Tibury’s Otia Imperialia [Recreations for an Emperor], Southern France (Arles or Avignon), 14th Century
Provenance: “Barrier, Advocat” (1614). The Collection of Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872). Purchased in 1947 from the London Book-Dealer E.P. Goldschmidt by Frederick S. Crofts ’05 and Given to Cornell the Same Year
[Detail] The Author Offering His Book to Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Cornell Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts, 4600 Bd. Ms 60
On July 1, 1954, Carl Stephenson became emeritus and on July 27, President Deane W. Malott announced the appointment of Theodor Ernst Mommsen as Professor of History.
Mommsen was the grandson of the German historian and Nobel Prize winner Theodor Mommsen and the relative (by marriage) of sociologists Max Weber and Alfred Weber. In Germany, he had been associated with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. In 1935 he left Germany in protest against Hitler’s totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. Subsequently, he taught at Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Princeton. In 1946 he taught a history course at Fort Getty in Rhode Island as part of a U.S. Army project to rehabilitate German prisoners-of-war so that they could work with Allied forces in post-war Germany.
At Cornell, Mommsen taught a survey course on “Civilization of the Middle Ages” and two seminars for advanced students: “The Empire and Papacy during the Middle Ages” and “The Italian City States of the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance.” According to his Memorial Statement, Mommsen “believed medieval history to be an ideal subject for teaching young historians because the relative scarcity of the records available for study made every fragment precious. They must learn, as he said, to squeeze the sources dry.”
Soft-spoken, suave, and a gentleman, Mommsen was popular with students, especially with closeted gay men. Small groups of students occasionally met with him after class to discuss literature and listen to classical music (a passion Mommsen shared with Laistner).
Mommsen had wide-ranging academic interests and he published more than twenty articles on topics such as St. Augustine, the topography of medieval Rome, and football (soccer) in Renaissance Florence. He also translated and edited Petrarch’s Testament (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1957). In his analysis of the text, Mommsen studied every clause in the will, relating each one to an episode in Petrarch’s life. In recognition of his efforts, the Department of Rare Books conferred on him the unprecedented privilege of keeping the department’s holdings of books by and about Petrarch in his library study in Boardman Hall.
Mommsen suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1958. His last will and testament included a bequest to Cornell University to be used to endow a fellowship for travel to Europe by students of the medieval period and the Renaissance.
Theodor Mommsen with Students, mid-1950s
N.B. Photostat projection photocopier technology revolutionized the study of rare medieval manuscripts after the 1920s. “Photostats” were widely used until the 1960s
In 1958, a Harvard professor of Fine Arts, G.M.A. Hanfmann, and the Dean of Cornell’s School of Architecture, Henry Detweiler, joined forces to begin a collaborative archaeological dig in Sardis, Turkey. The excavations, which continue today, were sponsored by the Turkish Government, the American Schools of Oriental Research, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, and the Architecture School at Cornell. Over the years Cornell students have regularly participated in the dig. One of the current Associate Directors of the project is Andrew Ramage (Professor Emeritus, History of Art and Visual Studies).
An Early Byzantine Portrait from the 6th Century C.E. Found at the Door of the Annex to the Old Synagogue in Sardis. Uncovered by Cornell-Harvard Archeologists.
Source: Cornell Alumni News, January 1967
Cornell’s reputation for excellence in medieval studies and for quaint eccentricity was satirized by Vladimir Nabokov, Professor of Russian Literature, in his novel Pnin (1957), set in imaginary Waindell College.
“Two interesting characteristics distinguished Leonard Blorenge, Chairman of French Literature and Language; he disliked Literature and he had no French. […] A highly esteemed money-getter, he had recently induced a rich old man, whom three great universities had courted in vain, to promote with a fantastic endowment a riot of research conducted by graduates under the direction of Dr. Slavski, a Canadian, toward the erection, on a hill near Waindell, of a ‘French Village’, two streets and a square, to be copied from those of the ancient little burg of Vandel in the Dordogne.”
In 1957, medieval studies at Cornell was strengthened by the appointment of Isaac Rabinowitz, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea scrolls, and medieval and Renaissance Jewish intellectual history.
In 1959, the College of Arts and Sciences created an “Interdepartmental Committee on Medieval and Renaissance Studies” chaired by Prof. Walter Hoyt French, author of an important study on early English romance, “Essays on King Horn” (1940). Some medievalists in the College reportedly were unhappy with the Anglo-centric focus of the committee.
During the 1960s, Cornell students of medieval studies were active in politics. In 1961 Del Greenblatt (b. 1940) participated in the “Freedom Rides” in Jackson, Mississippi. She was arrested on June 9.
Also in the 1960s, students complained that it was difficult to find courses on medieval history. In a “Letter to the Editor” published in the Cornell Daily Sun on 3 May 1966, one student wrote: “The average student can’t get any course covering medieval history in depth.”
Beginning in 1959, four departments in the College of Arts and Sciences appointed five medievalists who would play an instrumental role in the creation of a multi-disciplinary medieval studies program that covered several medieval languages and literatures, including English, French, Italian, German, Occitan Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
In 1959 Brian Tierney (B.A., 1948, Ph.D., 1951, Cambridge) was hired by Cornell as Full Professor of Medieval History. Tierney was born in 1922 in North Lincolnshire and served with distinction in the Royal Air Force during World War II. After the war, Tierney and his wife, Theresa, moved to the United States, where he taught for eight years at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. After joining the Cornell faculty, one of his first projects was to study a treatise by Saint Antoninus (1389-1459), Archbishop of Florence, printed in Nuremberg by Koberger between 1477 and 1479 and given to Cornell in 1960 by the University Library Associates (Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts BX1749 A63+++).
Between 1955 and 1964, Tierney published three important monographs: Foundations of the Conciliar Theory: the Contribution of the Medieval Canonists from Gratian to the Great Schism (Cambridge University Press, 1955); Medieval Poor Law: a Sketch of Canonical Theory and its Application in England (University of California Press, 1959); and Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (Prentice-Hall and Spectrum Books, 1964). In 1964, in recognition of his “disciplinary breadth and acumen and the ecumenical significance of his work,” he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Theology from the Uppsala University. In 1966, he was awarded a grant from the American Council of Learned Society for study in Europe, where he lectured in Munich, Bonn, Freiburg, Aachen, Saarbrucken, Salzburg, Leiden, Groningen, and Nijmegen. In 1969 he became Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History at Cornell.
Tierney argued that the modern concepts of democracy and natural rights have their origins in the Middle Ages. He did not shy away from academic controversy, and his intellectual audacity, together with his congenial personality attracted many Cornell students to his courses. The author of an article in the Cornell Daily Sun (April 17, 1963) observed that “one Anglophile was impressed most by Tierney’s accent and moustache.”
In 1972 Tierney—a practicing Roman Catholic who had served as President of the American Catholic Historical Association–published his Origins of papal infallibility, 1150-1350: a study on the concepts of infallibility, sovereignty and tradition in the Middle Ages (Leiden, E. J. Brill), in which he challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council of 1869-70. According to Tierney, the seeds of the doctrine of papal infallibility had been sown by members of the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century for the sake of political convenience. Previously, Tierney contended, papal infallibility played no part in the canonical tradition. To this he added that “the papacy adopted the doctrine out of weakness. Perhaps one day the Church will feel strong enough to renounce it.” The book triggered a scholarly exchange or debate, published in issues of one English and one Italian journal, between Tierney and Msgr. Alfons Maria Stickler (1910-2007), the Prefect of the Apostolic Vatican Library. Some thirty years after the book was published, a summary of the subsequent controversy in the New Catholic Encyclopedia noted that “[m]ost scholars recognize that Tierney correctly located in the late 13th century the first discussions of papal infallibility” and added that, as regards other points raised in the work, “the discussion continues.”
In 1969 Tierney became Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History and in 1977 he was chosen as the first Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies at Cornell. In 1980 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and in 1981 he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Catholic University of America “for his contributions to medieval studies and to the academic profession generally.”
Circa 1960, the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics hired James W. Marchand (Ph.D., Michigan, 1955), a historical linguist with broad interests that included Germanic literature, Celtic literature, medieval music, New Testament Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old Irish. Marchand was a strong supporter of medieval studies. Sometime during the 1965-1966 academic year, several Cornell medievalists met at his house in Ithaca to discuss the creation of a medieval studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences. The discussions led to the formulation of a draft proposal.
n 1962 Alice Colby-Hall (B.A., Colby College, M.A., Middlebury College [Paris program], Ph.D., Columbia University) became the first female professor of medieval studies at Cornell and the first person to teach medieval French literature at the university. She rose quickly through the academic ranks: Instructor (1962), Assistant Professor (1963), Associate Professor (1966), full Professor (1975). An expert on medieval French literature, Colby-Hall taught courses on phonology, courtly romance and lyric, epic, drama, and troubadour poetry. She is the author of The Portrait in Twelfth-Century French Literature: An Example of the Stylistic Originality of Chrétien de Troyes (1965) and of numerous studies on the Guillaume d’Orange tradition, including, “Vita sancti Willelmi,” fondateur de l’abbaye de Gellone, édition et traduction du texte médiéval d’après le manuscrit de l’abbaye de Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (Montpellier: Arts et Traditions Rurales, 2014).
In 1984 Colby-Hall was elected to the Académie de Vaucluse in Avignon and in 1985 she was awarded the Médaille des Amis d’Orange. In 1997 she received one of France’s highest honors: She was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture for her contribution to the spread of French culture and to the preservation of the country’s historical and literary heritage.
In 1963 John Freccero (B.A., English, M.A., French, Ph.D., Romance Studies – all from Johns Hopkins) was appointed Associate Professor in the Romance Studies Department. He was promoted to full professor in 1966. Regarded by many as the “intellectual heir” of Charles S. Singleton, Freccero was a leading expert on Dante and medieval theology. He also served as curator of Cornell’s Dante and Petrarch Collections, in which capacity he initiated a new policy of loaning rare books to other American universities for their library exhibitions. On May 10, 1965, on the occasion of the Cornell Centennial Celebrations—which coincided with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth (1265) — Freccero delivered a lecture in Willard Straight Hall for Cornell Trustees and others entitled “Dante’s River of Death: Inferno, II, 108.” In the spring of 1966, he taught a seminar on “Confessional Writings and the Origins of the Novel”. In 1969, Freccero left Cornell for Yale together with two other distinguished professors, historians David Brion Davis and Donald Kagan – a major blow to Cornell, dubbed the “Yale Raid” in the Cornell Daily Sun (12 February 1969).
In 1964 Robert Kaske (M.A., 1947, Ph.D., 1951, University of North Carolina) and his wife, Carol (Ph.D., English, Johns Hopkins) were hired by the English Department. Kaske, who played baseball at UNC and later served in World War II, was a specialist on Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, and patristic exegesis. A Falstaffian figure, he was popular with students. Although he was trained in the methods of New Criticism–the close reading of texts with little or no attention to historical context, Kaske argued that medieval texts merit close attention to their intellectual, political, and religious context and to the expectations and experiences of the medieval reader—as reflected inter alia in iconography. Those contexts were the subject of his renowned bibliography seminar. The atmosphere in these seminars has been described as follows by Emerson Brown, a student of Kaske’s in the 1960s and later a Chaucer scholar at Stanford and Vanderbilt: “Our heads were dizzy with learning and with ideas… and we helped one another in our sometimes bizarre researches… We called or dropped in unannounced to seek his help with passages of impossible Latin, to refine our growing knowledge of scholarly bibliography, or to consult one of his old books or borrow one of his newer ones. His extraordinary library… was not a private preserve, but a continual source of help for his students and colleagues” (Obituary for Robert Kaske, New York Times, August 8, 1989).
Robert E. Kaske in His Office with His Dog
Portrait Published in Cornell Alumni News, May 1976
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, ARP 505
In 1965 the History Department hired James J. John as Professor of Palaeography and Medieval History. After receiving his doctorate in Medieval Studies at Notre Dame in 1959, John collaborated with E.A. Lowe for fourteen years to produce six volumes in the series Codices Latini Antiquiores, a study of early English handwriting. At Cornell, John taught a popular course on the Middle Ages and published numerous articles on Latin palaeography, dozens of book reviews, and many encyclopaedia entries. He received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Society.
The research and teaching of these five scholars received strong support from the librarian Felix Reichmann (1899-1987). Reichmann, who was Jewish, was born in Vienna and wrote his doctoral thesis on Gothic mural painting. He became a book-dealer who travelled frequently to Frankfurt, Paris, London and Florence and developed an expertise on the history of the medieval book trade. In 1938, following the Nazi annexation of Austria, Reichmann was incarcerated and his book business in Vienna was “Aryanized” or taken over by a former employee. Following his release, he managed to scrape together the high “taxes” or ransom money demanded by the Nazis of anyone who wanted to leave the country. In 1939 he immigrated to the United States with his wife, Lily. Reichmann was hired by Cornell in 1947 and served as Assistant Director of Cornell Libraries from 1948 to 1970. He acquired many books and periodicals for Cornell medievalists, but never completed his own comprehensive essay on “The Origin of the Title Page.” Reichmann was an early advocate of the use of computers in libraries. In recognition of his services to Cornell faculty, Prof. Morris “Pop” Bishop inscribed a copy of his best-selling survey, The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages (Boston: The American Heritage Publishing Company, 1968), “to the Cornell University Library, the onlie begetter of this book.”
Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages, American Press (Paperback Edition), 1970
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, D127 B62
During the 1965-1966 academic year, several professors in the College of Arts and Sciences – led by Freccero, Kaske, and Marchand — lobbied vigorously for the creation of a medieval studies program that would train not only undergraduates but also graduate students.
On January 7, 1966, John Freccero wrote the following letter to Stephen M. Parrish, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in which he deplored “careerism,” argued for the importance of medieval studies, and proposed that undergraduates who want to pursue a career in this field should be allowed to design a special curriculum:
“[…] In medieval studies, it is generally agreed that no widely-accepted departmental “major” constitutes adequate preparation for graduate studies in the Middle Ages. Typically then, a prospective medievalist must spend much of his time during the first two years of graduate school preparing himself in more or less elementary subjects (e.g., two or three more languages, literature course outside the main field of interest, palaeography, classics, etc.) This could be corrected by tailoring an undergraduate curriculum to the needs of a prospective specialist (at the expense of science requirements, etc. of course), were it not for the fact that, by the nature of our society, students do not have a clear idea of a medieval “vocation” until they learn something about the Middle Ages, which is usually not before their Junior year. […] [It is important] to subvert puerile notions of “career” as early as possible, with the hope of finding among good potential physicists (for example), some who might equally well become truly great medievalists […] If students could be made to see the importance of the synchronic [sic] study of eight centuries of the world’s culture early in their careers, they might well decide to prepare themselves for that, rather than for a more traditional course of study. […] What I said for medieval studies might equally well be said of Renaissance studies, American studies (as opposed to American literature), Italian studies and so on, with every field, in short, that does not correspond to a traditional departmental division in the humanities. […]”
In August of 1966, the Dean of the Graduate School, W. Donald Cooke, “reluctantly” agreed to the creation of a new graduate field in Medieval Studies. In his annual report to President James A. Perkins, Dean Cooke expressed his concerns as follows:
“The organization of the Graduate School into fields which are administratively independent of departments and colleges results in a tendency for a proliferation of such educational units. The reason for this tendency is that new fields can be established without consideration as to funding.
In the past academic year three new fields have been established. Two of them are in the area of Biological Sciences: genetics and Neurobiology. […] The other field is Medieval Studies, which represents a rather unique situation at Cornell in that we have an unusually large number of faculty with an interest in this area of study. My only feeling, and one with which the General Committee agreed, was that this was not the best way to encourage such studies at Cornell. The field will not be directly associated with any department and will have to depend on departments for space and support of their graduate students. Students in the program will probably be given a lower priority in competition with students more associated with such departments. It was suggested that the best course of action was to establish such programs within the present loose field structure and, at least theoretically, this would be possible. Within the Code of Legislation, a student could, for example, major in History or Philosophy and design a program which would allow him to concentrate in medieval Studies. The proponents of the new field argued that while such a course of action is theoretically possible, in actual practice it is not because of the rather rigorously defined programs of study in the Humanities Fields. Given the intensity with which the new Field was proposed, the General Committee reluctantly agreed to include Medieval Studies as a new Field in the Graduate School. It was felt that some of the most promising professors in the Humanities were backing the proposal very strongly and a rejection would cause extensive unhappiness.”
The creation of the Medieval Studies Program at Cornell was officially announced in the summer of 1966.
The first Director of the Program, Marchand, served only one semester, fall 1966. Colby-Hall became Director of the Program in the spring of 1967 and served for three semesters. During her sabbatic in 1969-70, Kaske was Acting Director of the Program. Colby-Hall resumed her position as Director between fall, 1970 and spring, 1972.
During the academic year 1970-71, Colby-Hall asked the Dean of the Arts College, Alfred Kahn, to allocate a teaching assistantship in the Freshman Seminar Program to the new Medieval Studies Program for the following academic year. Kahn agreed (unlike the previous Dean, Stuart Brown, who had refused a similar request from Colby-Hall). In the spring of 1972, the allocation was increased to two sections. The number of sections increased in subsequent years, providing the Program with critical support for its graduate students.