If you want to see what the world will look like in the future, come visit the MIT campus today.
But if you want to see what the world looked like a thousand years ago, you can also come visit the MIT campus today.
The cutting-edge at MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences includes research into history, music, and literature from the Middle Ages. Undergraduates can use a forge and foundry, as well as take a concentration in Ancient and Medieval Studies. Students even write riddles in Old English.
Three MIT professors recently drew attention for their work in Middle Ages technology, medieval literature, and early music. Read on to see how they are helping to understand the past at a school most known for how it is inventing the future.
Arthur Bahr explains why Tolkien called his imagined world “Middle Earth”
J.R.R. Tolkien set his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy in a mythical land called Middle Earth. His inspiration, says MIT professor Arthur Bahr, came from a poem by Cynewulf, an Old English poet:
Héala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended
The line is a tribute to the rising sun—”Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent”—and reflects the psychology of its place and era, says Bahr, the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Chair and professor of literature. “In the Middle Ages, Northern Germanic peoples thought of themselves as living in Middle Earth, because they felt that they were surrounded by dangers and uncertainties,” he says.
Bahr says he is not surprised that two of the 20th century’s most famous creators of imaginative worlds—Tolkien and his friend, C.S. Lewis—were also medievalists because he thinks medieval literature inspires people to engage in “imaginative world building.”
“The search for beauty in unexpected forms, the desire to know an alien culture: these are quests, and humanity has been questing for as long as we’ve been a species,” he says. “Which is why I feel confident that we’re going to be reading and discussing and enjoying medieval literature for a long time to come.”
The Dark Ages? Not so dark, says Anne McCants
The Middle Ages, roughly the historical era between the end of the Roman Empire and the year 1300 A.D., are commonly thought of as a backward time. Even the era’s nickname—the “Dark Ages”—conjures up a sense of intellectual scarcity.
In a recent article in Forbes, however, MIT professor Anne McCants says the historical record shows otherwise. Northern Europe, for example, had thriving hubs of economic activity and technological advancement. “Where we find centers of economic activity we see technological advances and vice versa,” says McCants, a professor of history. “So, shipping technologies are the big story in 7th- and 8th-century North Sea centers inhabited by Vikings, Friesians, and the like.”
At MIT, McCants has helped students understand what life was like in this era by offering a class in medieval clothing technology, from washing, carding, dyeing, and spinning fleece, to weaving and constructing simple garments, as well as a session on ancient and medieval cooking, complete with butter churned in an MIT dorm.
Michael Cuthbert: from early music to computational musicology
Michael Cuthbert’s relentless curiosity spans music of the 14th century, computational musicology, and minimalism and other music of the past 40 years.
In recent years, Cuthbert, the Homer A. Burnell Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Music at MIT, has taken a deep dive into the music of 14th- and early 15th-century composers, such as Zachara da Teramo. “Here was this person who was the pope’s official scribe, who could barely hold a quill, and he was the most beautiful copyist, and must have encountered all this beautiful music,” he says. “All these different influences just come together in his music.”
Cuthbert also believes we know more about early music than previously believed. “Everybody in my field believed we have the smallest tip of what’s out there—maybe 99 percent was lost,” Cuthbert says. “It looks to me that somewhere between one-third and two-thirds survived. We have a large proportion of what was once written down in the 14th century that we can study today.”
While in graduate school, Cuthbert worked as a programmer for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge. Today, he’s combining his ability to write code with his knowledge of music to develop music21, an open-source toolkit for music scholars and teachers.