Notable Cornell Medievalists

Alice Colby-Hall, 1932- 

Educated at Colby College and Columbia University, Alice Colby-Hall came to Cornell in 1962 where she became the first female professor of medieval studies and the first person to teach medieval French literature. Colby-Hall 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 (2014). In 1984 Colby-Hall was elected to the Académie de Vaucluse in Avignon; in 1985 she was awarded the Médaille des Amis d’Orange; and in 1997 she was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of her contribution to the spread of French culture and to the preservation of the country’s historical and literary heritage. Colby-Hall served as Director of the between 1967 and 1972.

Brian Tierney, 1922—2019

Educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Brian Tierney came to Cornell in 1959 as a professor of medieval history after serving eight years on the faculty of The Catholic University of America. Professor Tierney earned international distinction during his career at Cornell. He was named Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History in 1969, and the first Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies in 1977.

A specialist in medieval church history, he focused his studies on the structure of the medieval church and the medieval state, and on how the interactions of the two influenced the development of Western institutions. He published numerous articles on this subject, and is the author of several books, including Foundations of the Conciliar Theory and the Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300. He was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1953 and 1954, and was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1961-62. A practicing Roman Catholic, Professor Tierney risked controversy when he challenged the Catholic Church’s doctrine of papal infallibility in 1972.

Norman Kretzmann, 1928—1998

Norman Kretzmann joined Cornell’s Department of Philosophy in 1966. His work as a teacher and scholar was recognized in 1970, when he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, and in 1977 when he was elected a Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy by the University Board of Trustees. In 1992, he received a Graduate Teaching Award from the Northeastern Association of Graduate Deans for his excellence and creativity in the teaching of graduate students. He became a Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus in 1995.

A specialist in the history of medieval philosophy and the philosophy of religion, Professor Kretzmann published numerous books, articles, essays, and editions of medieval texts. He served as the principal editor of The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (1982), and as an editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, shown here, is among his many contributions. Professor Kretzmann was a much beloved member of the Cornell community; his students and colleagues will miss him.

Robert E. Kaske, 1921—1989

A specialist in medieval literature, particularly Old and Middle English works, Professor Kaske joined the English Department at Cornell in 1964, and in 1975 was named Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities.

During his impressive career as a scholar of medieval literature, Professor Kaske was the author of one book and more than sixty articles, the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Fellowship for Independent Study and Research from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He served on the editorial and advisory boards of The Chaucer Review, Speculum and A Manual of Writings in Middle English, and as editor-in-chief of Traditio. His premature death was a loss to his family, students, friends, and colleagues, and to the entire Cornell community.

Max Ludwig Wolfram Laistner, 1890—1959

Max Laistner came to Cornell from his native England to take up a post as a professor of ancient history in 1925. In 1940 he was appointed John Stambaugh Professor of History, and served a term as Chair of the Department of History.

Professor Laistner specialized in Greek and Roman history, and in the intellectual history of the early middle ages. He lectured and published widely, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and served on the editorial boards of the American Historical Review, Classical Philology, and Medievalia et Humanistica. One of his most influential works, Thought and Letters in Western Europe AD 500 to 900, first published in 1931, became a classic and was reissued in numerous subsequent editions.

Harry Caplan, 1896—1980

Professor Harry Caplan was, for more than half a century, one of the most beloved teachers and renowned scholars at Cornell. Born on a farm not far from Albany, N.Y., he received his A.B., A.M., and, in 1921, his Ph.D. from Cornell. After serving as an instructor in classics and public speaking, he was appointed an Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics in 1925, where he served as chairman from 1929 to 1946. He was named Goldwin Smith Chair of Classical Languages and Literature in 1941.

During his long and productive career, Professor Caplan lectured at more than forty colleges, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928-29 and a research fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1934. One of his greatest contributions to scholarship was his English translation of the Rhetorica ad Herennium for the Loeb Classical Library Series. He is most remembered, however, by three generations of Cornell students, who recall, some in published tributes, his great warmth, generosity, gentleness and passion as a teacher.

Carl Stephenson, 1886—1954

A Harvard graduate of 1914, Professor Stephenson came to Cornell in 1930 after teaching at Harvard, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Princeton, and Washington. In 1924-25, under a Belgian Relief Fellowship, he studied with the famous medievalist Henry Pirenne at the University of Ghent and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930-31.

Stephenson was an authority on the Middle Ages and the growth of towns. His book, Medieval History: Europe from the Fourth to the Sixteenth Century, was for decades one of the most widely used textbooks in the field. Over the course of nearly 25 years, Professor Stephenson made medieval history a living subject for thousands of Cornell students. He is still remembered by many as a dedicated and inspirational teacher.

George Lincoln Burr, 1857—1938

As a student at Cornell, George Lincoln Burr soon came to the attention of one of his history professors—Cornell University’s first President, Andrew Dickson White. Under White’s tutelage, Burr developed into a scholar of medieval history. After traveling and completing his studies in Switzerland, France, and Germany, Burr was appointed to the Cornell faculty in 1888 and made Professor of Medieval History in 1892. In 1919, he was elected John Stambaugh Professor of History.

Burr’s particular area of expertise was the conflict between science and theology, and his best known publications address the history of superstition and the persecution of witchcraft in Europe. As the librarian of Andrew Dickson White’s historical rare book collection from 1880 to 1922, he and White built Cornell’s manuscript and rare book collections in the areas of witchcraft, the Reformation, and the French Revolution. The lasting legacy of these two men will continue to enrich the academic experiences of future generations of students and scholars.