A Window Into the Medieval Academy

by Jude Russo ’16

Some things have changed a great deal in form since the twelfth century. The university is not one of them. This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of working for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library editing two texts: John of Hauville’s Architrenius (translated by Winthrop Wetherbee) and the anonymous Tria sunt (translated by Martin Camargo), which both provide fascinating windows into the academia of what we call the “High Middle Ages.” What is truly surprising about the picture they paint is not its foreignness, but rather how instantly recognizable it is as our own academic world.

The Architrenius is a late twelfth-century cosmological epic about a young academic named Architrenius—“the Archweeper”—who, having come to terms with his own flawed person, seeks out Nature personified to complain to her for giving birth to such an imperfect son. His journey is a series of tableaux presenting a grim picture of twelfth-century society: students starve and are despised for their learning while the wealthy buy influence at court. Images are disconnected and the narrative jumps from scene to scene without much explanation or transition.

This quality is often cited as a weakness in John’s work, but I think that it furnishes the Architrenius with a dreaminess that characterizes so much of human experience. Architrenius is a man without narrative. He is moved from place to place without much real agency. He is a man whose sensitivity fails to goad him from passivity to action. He suffers, but does not become a sympathetic figure through his suffering. In short, the Architrenius makes the perfect gift for any young Harvardian in your life (copies available in the COOP pending publication).


Architrenius? Is that you?


The other text with which I’m working, the Tria sunt, is a late fourteenth-century rhetorical manual composed of clippings from earlier treatises and elaborations on those clippings by the anonymous Oxonian monk who compiled them. Drawing on diverse sources, ancient and contemporary to himself, the compiler produced a quick-and-dirty guide to the elaborate, philologically intense literary style of the time. The Tria sunt gives the lie to the popular conception of the Middle Ages as an aesthetically barren period characterized by nebbish tonsured men bickering about minor points of angelology. Instead, your average medieval cleric-student was expected to be able to produce heavily ornamented prose and poetic works more or less on demand. The Tria sunt was his helpful crib sheet of techniques to use. Much of its particular attraction lies in the fact that it gives insight into the texts that were available to and favored by the English academics of the time, much as a Harvard class’s course pack would give insight to some future scholars studying the Late American period.

Each text has had varied fortunes. The Architrenius was well-known and well-loved within a generation of its composition—in fact, the Tria sunt singles it out for particularly fulsome praise—and, while perhaps less familiar today than the allegories of Bernard Sylvester or Alan of Lille, has had an interesting afterlife as one of the few medieval works that Gibbon cites positively. The Tria sunt, on the other hand, has remained consistently obscure, failing to become a major textbook outside the sphere of Oxford. These two works—one polished and widely circulated, one ad hoc and provincial—provide together a fascinating and surprisingly full picture of the medieval intellectual landscape and its arresting similarities to our own.

Musings on a Young Merlin

by Teddy Delwiche ’17

Like a sheep slinking from the ill-aimed axe, the fifth-century British ruler Vertigen barely managed to evade his butcher: the Saxons. In a bedraggled, though not altogether unsuccessful effort, the Britons had managed to slay some of their Saxon foes, casting them “to the infernal regions with their heads smashed” (multos per palum confractis cervicibus ad Tartara legavit). But flight was inevitable.

Skirting off to Wales, Vertigen sought aid from his advisers (magi): “They all said together that he should build a very strong tower for himself that would be a fortress for him against the evil enemies who had stolen his kingdom through treachery” (Dixeruntque omnes pariter ut aedificaret sibi turrim fortissimam quae foret sibi munimentum contra hostes nefarios qui dolo sibi regnum surripuerant. Historia Regum Britanniae 6.106).

The process proved futile, as the cement blocks—like Jenga pieces stacked on a Jello surface—refuse to hold firmly in situ. Reduced to the status of “liars and fools” (mendaces et fatui), Vertigen’s supposedly wise advisers enlist the assistance of a mere child to solve their conundrum.

The boy’s name? Merlin. The problem with the tower? It had been built over a pond.


Harry Potter’s wizened wizard Dumbledore, based on the archetype of Merlin

Such is the beginning to one of innumerable tales I am editing this summer as one of Dumbarton Oaks’ three Medieval Latin interns. What exactly do I do? Numerous interns before me have described the position in hearty, fuller terms, so I will keep my contribution brief: I read Latin all day. This explanation, as I have found, usually elicits a tone-deaf “Interesting” retort from my DC peers occupied with their think-tank, finance, or startup internship. But I assure you the work really is interesting.

For six weeks so far I have been helping edit a variant version of the “History of the Kings of Britain” (Historia Regum Britanniae), combing through the entire edition in Latin and providing comments on everything from translation to citation to the mere title of the work—a much more involved and pointed process than one may initially think. The entire affair has afforded me an opportunity I increasingly find to be a rarity: to slow down, to regard a text in a genuine manner, one defined not by striving for flashes of interpretive insight for showcase, but rather by extending simple, unadulterated attention. True thought often takes true time.

Perhaps that is what I have found so enticing about Merlin in the specific incident mentioned above, that a prepubescent boy can surpass the counsel from men of greater age and repute. Those men lust for immediate action, but lack the means to achieve it.

Of course today, Merlin’s image is largely confined to that of a magician, a wise wizard, a beady blue-eyed Dumbledore. But at least in this portion of the “History of the Kings of Britain,” it is the predictive power, that ability to pierce through the banal or chaotic or confused, that provides youthful Merlin his vim. Yes, Merlin may have the help of what today would be considered supernatural agents. And yes, he can still perform magical stunts apt for HBO. But I suppose for me the simple fact is this: I prefer a wizard reliant on wisdom, rather than the wand.

I cannot say definitively my time in the DOML office will render me any wiser, any closer to Merlin. Surely after this summer I will have attained a finer attention to detail. And if I ever find myself in dire straits, I will think twice about the foundations upon which I construct a tower.

Designing “The Garden as an Ecosystem”


by Iriowen Ojo ’19

Throughout the years, I’ve come to realize that I am the kind of person who highly dislikes being taken on tours. Ten years ago when I was in the fourth grade, my class went on a field trip to a colonial-style village during our unit on Long Island history. The excitement of missing a day of coursework wore off quickly as we were led around the museum village in the chill of early April. I remember very little from that trip, other than the moment I cut my mouth on a piece of rock candy I’d bought at the village gift shop, and the many hours I spent trailing in the back, tired and disinterested.

The next year’s spring field trip, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, left me more irritable than did the visit to the colonial village; I wanted to participate in the tour guide’s commentary but he ignored me whenever I raised my hand. By the end of that trip, I was bored by the artwork and deeply annoyed with the tour guide. The latter has become a repeating theme, and although I admit that I am too impatient and too quick to fall victim to boredom, I get how easy it is for people to feel detached from tours when they are not invited to participate. This is something I’ve kept in mind all summer while interning at Dumbarton Oaks.

As part of public outreach, I’ve been working to encourage external involvement with the museum and gardens through social media, newsletter articles, and most of all, outreach projects. One of these projects consists of working with an elementary school in Georgetown to create educational and interactive garden tours for students. Dumbarton Oaks’ previous collaborative project with the school included a Tree Notebook workshop in which young students took a guided tour of the gardens and learned how to identify different tree species.

This summer’s project, Science in the Garden, is part of a series of collaboration efforts between Dumbarton Oaks and other D.C. public schools, and emphasizes concepts learned in second and third grade science classes. It is unique in that it tailors tour programming specifically to the school’s class curriculums. This is an important part of the tour, because irrelevance is a big problem: when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a ten-year old, I couldn’t find many connections between the Impressionist paintings we were examining and the New York history lessons we were learning in school. It’s hard to participate in touring conversation when the guide’s information is unrelated to your own. With a curriculum-based tour, the guides’ information corresponds to students’ knowledge and tours can act as either introductions or reviews, always relevant. Therefore, I decided it was extremely important to focus on consistent interaction while designing the tour, with the guide involving the students in demonstrations and lessons as much as possible.

The tour I’m planning is called “The Garden as an Ecosystem.” Spanning multiple units, “The Garden as an Ecosystem” prompts students to consider the maintenance of their neighborhoods and compare them to the maintenance of the gardens. It includes a review of concepts in a format that encourages students to participate and even take over the explanation of terms and functions: tour guides take over teaching roles and act as if the students are in an interactive classroom, asking them questions and answering questions and making sure to summarize main points at the end of each tour stop. At the conclusion of the tour, students have the opportunity to explore the garden on their own in small groups, hunting for answers to questions in the activity packets provided by Dumbarton Oaks.

Planning “The Garden as an Ecosystem” tour was both an educational and reflective experience for me. Back in second and third grade, I loved science. I even had an imaginary lab in my basement, where I’d spend hours pretending to build new inventions with my plastic tool set, or mix my mom’s shampoos and perfumes together to make “chemical solutions.” I can’t tell you what happened to me now—somewhere between the end of middle school and sophomore year of high school I developed a strong fear of all things math and science—but I do know that I probably would have enjoyed visiting Dumbarton Oaks in elementary school. Additionally, after relearning concepts as simple as the water cycle in order to come up with programming for the tour, I’ve realized how easy it is to fall behind in the sciences. “The Garden as an Ecosystem” tour’s focus on review and participation aims to not only combine education and exploration, but also to strengthen students’ understandings of concepts by anchoring them in real, memorable settings.

Post(card)-Byzantium: The 19th Century Revival of an Empire

by Abby Westover ’17

Take a moment to examine the item below:


One of the most noticeable aspects is the title “Theodora.” The name belongs to the Byzantine prostitute-turned-empress, whose scandalous story history teachers so often dangle as an exotic fruit to entice students’ interest in the era. The decorative disks, laden with colorful jewels and ending with dangling droplets, are equally striking. A bit subtler, the Eagle of Byzantium lurks in the background, elegantly adorning the paper and stamping it with a sense of regal power. Visually, this item denotes royalty and wealth.

With this consideration, the purpose of this item might seem a bit curious, if not flat-out contradicting: it is a postcard advertising lotion. Overall, not exactly something you would consider glamorous. The term “postcard” is much more likely to conjure images of cheap, badly-printed images that can be bought for a pittance at a seedy tourist shop and are sent to friends when you feel guilty about not keeping in touch with them.

Though the appearance and function of this particular postcard might seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, they work together in a complex and fascinating manner. The cosmetics company advertised, Ed. Pinaud, used the appeal of an historical figure known for her exotic and decadent nature to increase the attractiveness of its product; printing the advertisement on a postcard allowed for inexpensive dissemination. Although this particular example is unused, the blank space on the front would normally be used to write a quick note to a friend, similar to our modern-day usage of texts or Snapchats. The advertisement merely served as a background, a framework for an accessible and common mode of communication. Ultimately, this postcard embodies the intersection between the mundane and the exalted, the modern and the ancient, providing invaluable insight into the popular imagination to which it catered.

As the summer intern working on Dumbarton Oak’s Ephemera Collection, cultural history is my trade. Postcards, collectibles, ticket stubs, magazines, and even receipts provide glimpses into the lives of people who once owned them: where they traveled, what they thought, what caught their interest, and what they considered beautiful. As a result, they are a great way to track changes and developments in cultural phenomena.

One of these developments, as is represented in the aesthetics of the Theodora lotion postcard, was a turn-of-the-20th-century obsession with the Byzantine Empire. This Byzantine-mania was due largely to the work of a French playwright by the name of Victorien Sardou. Elena Boeck writes about his dramatic re-telling of a history and its influence on popular culture in her article Archaeology of Decadence: Uncovering Byzantium in Victorien Sardou’s Theodora. Before Victorien Sardou’s 1884 play Theodora, Byzantium had faded in the memories of his contemporaries, likely remaining for most people a vague notion of a kingdom that straddled the West and East and slowly suffocated between them. However, his re-creation highlighted the decadent, regal, and seductive qualities of the empire.

The 1884 version of the play, which premiered in France, starred the beloved actress Sarah Bernhardt as the complex, morally ambiguous Theodora. Her background as a prostitute and eventual rise to the throne evinced a character both scandalous and impressive. Bernhardt returned to the role in a 1902 revival, solidifying in French popular imagination the lavish appeal of Byzantine style, architecture, and memorable set of characters.

Proof of Byzantium’s popularity can be found in a number of ways, with postcards playing no small role in demonstrating the numerous cultural effects of Sardou’s play. , visual reminders of the spectacular production the owners had witnessed. The cards below show the actor Dejardin as Justinian (left) and Sarah Bernhardt onstage as Theodora (right):

But the ripple effects moved beyond simply a wish to remember the play itself. As can be seen from these cards above, perhaps the most striking aspect of the play was its visual appeal. The play inspired creative minds of the time, sparking them to create artistic representations of Byzantium that often matched Sardou’s lavish style much more than actual historical accuracy:

However, the creative license taken in the revival of a popular Byzantium did not mean an absence of sincere historical interest, some of which was likely re-awakened by Sardou’s play. Byzantine sites were popular travel destinations at the turn of the century, such as the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (left) and the mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna (right).

Unfortunately, we cannot exactly determine through postcards what the cultural presence of Byzantium was like before the 1884 play, as the golden age of postcards began in the 1890s. However, the cards we do have are such simple yet beautiful illustrations of how theoretical phenomena interact with daily life. Sardou’s play was critically acclaimed and adored by many lovers of theatre, but from these cards we see that it permeated many facets of his culture. Byzantium was once more at the forefront in many Western minds, half a millennium after its dissolution.