The Virgin and the Dynamo: the growth of medieval studies in North America 1870–1930

The Virgin and the Dynamo: the growth of medieval studies in North America 1870–1930

By William J. Courtenay

Medieval Studies in North America: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Francis G. Gentry and Christopher Kleinhenz (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982)

Introduction: fall of 1870 Henry Adams, having recently returned from a disappointing summer in Europe and looking forward to building a literary-political career for himself in Washington, went out from Boston to Cambridge at the urging of family and friends to discuss with Charles W. Eliot the latterʼs invitation to join the small Department of History at Harvard as assistant professor of medieval history.

ʻBut, Mr. President,ʼ urged Adams, ʻI know nothing about Medieval History.ʼ With the courteous manner and bland smile so familiar for the next generation of Americans, Mr. Eliot mildly but firmly replied, ʻIf you will point out to me any one who knows more, Mr. Adams, I will appoint him.ʼ

The answer was neither logical nor convincing, but Adams could not meet it without overstepping his privileges. He could not say that, under the circumstances, the appointment of any professor at all seemed to him unnecessary.1 Thus began a seven-year period in the life of Henry Adams as lecturer in History 2, which bridged the gap between Ephraim Whitman Gurneyʼs lectures in classics and Henry Warren Torrey ʼs lectures in modern history. His description of his first-yearʼs experience strikes a familiar chord in the memory of almost every teacher.

For the next nine months the Assistant Professor had no time to waste on comforts or amusements. He exhausted all his strength in trying to keep one day ahead of his duties. Often the stint ran on, till night and sleep ran short. He could not stop to think whether he were doing the work rightly. He could not get it done to please him, rightly or wrongly, for he never could satisfy himself what to do.

Although Adams was appointed more for his breeding and European experience, his energy and raw talent, than for any particular expertise, earlier sections in his Education betray a taste for things medieval. He thus spoke out of modesty when he reflected that at “the moment he took his chair and looked his scholars in the face, he had given, as far as he could remember, an hour, more or less, to the Middle Ages.”

Still, Adams knew of no textbook in his field and was unacquainted with any other medievalist. He could discern no natural social evolution in the period. He could isolate no great truths, no lessons that would advance career or help perfect a philosophy of life. Within the limits of 500 to 1500 and with a belief that the stuff of history concerned political and legal developments, his pedagogy had all the discipline and direction of unguided antiquarian research. What structure it had was largely a residue of his academic experience in Berlin.

Henry Adamsʼs inability to think of anyone in America competent to teach medieval history reveals the limits either of his environment or his definition of history. By 1870 the Philadelphia publisher and private scholar, Henry Charles Lea, had already produced three works in the field of medieval religion and was on the way towards his major work on the Inquisition. But competence aside, there was no one with more expertise than Adams who could have been appointed. Lea, already forty-five and partner in his firm for a quarter century, would not have been attracted to a teaching career. John W. Draper, who was just beginning to produce his works in intellectual history, was nearing retirement at City College of New York and was, in any case, professor of Chemistry and Physics. America had no scholars of standing in medieval political, constitutional, or institutional history, such as existed in England, France, or Germany. Many lecturers dealt with the Middle Ages as part of a larger sequence, and many professed knowledge on some aspect of medieval society, for example law, architecture, language, literature, or church history. The fact remains that Henry Adams was the first American academic who made the Middle Ages his territory and whose sole responsibility was to teach medieval history.

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