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Medieval Studies and STEM

STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – has become an increasingly important idea in educational circles. In many countries there is an increased focus on teaching these subjects and better preparing young people for careers that make use of these fields.

Can one be be a medievalist and still be involved in STEM? In recent years we have seen many exciting projects involving medieval studies and these fields, where scholars are contributing to learn more about the past as well as offer solutions for present-day needs. Here are 15 ways that medieval studies and STEM are working together.

The AncientBiotics Project – testing medieval remedies to treat modern day superbugs

A one thousand year old Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections which originates from a manuscript in the British Library has been found to kill the modern-day superbug MRSA according to a research collaboration at The University of Nottingham. Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the School of English has enlisted the help of microbiologists from University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences to recreate a 10th century potion for eye infections from Bald’s Leechbook an Old English leatherbound volume in the British Library, to see if it really works as an antibacterial remedy.

The Leechbook is widely thought of as one of the earliest known medical textbooks and contains Anglo-Saxon medical advice and recipes for medicines, salves and treatments. Early results on the ‘potion’, tested in vitro at Nottingham and backed up by mouse model tests at a university in the United States, are, in the words of the US collaborator, “astonishing”. The solution has had remarkable effects on Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) an antibiotic-resistant bug.

Knowing the Colour of Your Eyes

A team of researchers from Poland and the Netherlands have developed a system that is able to answer what the hair and eye colour is from individuals who lived over 800 years ago. It is one of several projects that make use of the Middle Ages to better understand DNA and test technologies involved in genetic studies.

Using Lasers on Gothic Cathedrals

Andrew Tallon of Vasser College is using laser scans inside Notre Dame in Paris and other Gothic Cathedrals to better understand how these medieval buildings were constructed. Recently featured in National Geographic, his scanning is not only revealing new details about the design and construction of these cathedrals, but is able to generate panoramic images of the space. One of his colleagues said of Tallon that he is “able to combine that astonishing grasp of technology with the big humanistic vision that one hopes that art historians have.”

Medievalists and Climate Change

To know more about the causes of climate change and how it can affect the Earth, researchers are collaborating with medieval historians to better understand the climate of the past. One recent example is how Conor Kostick of the University of Nottingham looked into medieval evidence for climate events, which allowed scientists to pinpoint the exact relationship between historical volcanic activity and severe winters. Dr. Kostick explained, “I looked through my data and gave them a list of events, based not just upon obvious reports, such as eyewitness accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius in 472 CE, but also on more subtle evidence such as reports of the sun being dim, or discoloured. And the beauty of what happened next is that these examples formed a perfect match with the new ice-core data, even though I hadn’t seen their data and had no idea which years they were interested in.”

The Medieval Warfare on the Grid Project

Scholars from the universities of Princeton and Birmingham are using GRID technologies to better understand the events of one of the most important battles of the Middle Ages. By making use of computer-based models, the Medieval Warfare on the Grid Project is creating a digital environment that will allow them to follow how the Byzantine army marched through present-day Turkey on their way to the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. This technology will allow them to simulate the movements of army groups and units as well as individual soldiers and even pack animals. In addition to learning about the logistics of medieval armies, this project will also explore new infrastructures and algorithms for constructing and executing very large Multi-Agent models, particularly when these models are composed of distributed data and computational components.

Advanced decagonal quasicrystal geometry

A pair of physicists from Harvard and Princeton universities were able to discovered that over 500 years ago artisans working on Islamic architecture were able to understand and use advanced decagonal quasicrystal geometry – a concept that was not understood again until the 1970s and 1980s. To help them understand the complex tile patterns that can be found in medieval mosques, the scholars examined drawings in 15th century Persian scrolls made by master architects to document their techniques. One of the authors of the study, Peter Lu, explained, “It could be proof of a major role of mathematics in medieval Islamic art or it could have been just a way for artisans to construct their art more easily. It would be incredible if it were all coincidence, though. At the very least, it shows us a culture that we often don’t credit enough was far more advanced than we ever thought before.”

The Ordered Universe Project

The medievalists and scientists working on the Ordered Universe project have been been able to make use of the writings of Robert Grosseteste, a 13th century Bishop of Lincoln, to better understand the theoretical underpinnings of the origins of the universe as well as the idea of a multiverse. The team behind the project write, “For those in the humanities, this work enshrines the significance of Grosseteste as a thinker, and has shown the profoundly important ways in which modern scientists have helped to shape the processes of editing, translating and commenting on his works. For the scientists, this work has given a new historical perspective on our current assumptions, and new science, such as development in calculation tools for a class of shock wave, or novel colour mapping.”

Discovering Old Sarum

Archaeologists in England were able to discover the remains of a medieval city and castle without having to use a single shovel. The Old Sarum and Stratford-Sub-Castle Archaeological Survey Project was able to make use of non-invasive techniques such as earth resistance survey, magnetometry, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) to find the location of the remains, in the words of one the team members, “shows where individual buildings are located and from this we can piece together a detailed picture of the urban plan within the city walls.” It is one of many examples where archaeologists are making use of technologies that will allow them to explore new areas.

Medieval Technology goes to Mars

When the European Space Agency sends out the ExoMars rover mission in 2018, the panoramic camera system will be making use of stained glass – the same kind of glass used in medieval churches. The Martian environment makes it difficult for cameras to take accurate pictures, but the scientists behind the project believe that the nanotechnology used in medieval glass will allow them to show the true colours of the Red Planet. Professor Dave Barnes of Aberystwyth University explains “the stained-glass idea comes from observing the many brightly coloured windows in churches. These have been exposed to sunlight for centuries and show little to no colour degradation.”

Revealing the picture in medieval art

Technology and science are being used by many medieval art historians to reveal new details about paintings and manuscript illuminations from the Middle Ages. For example, the Collections Research Laboratory at the Getty Conservation Institure is able to use a wide range of non-invasive techniques to examine works of art, such as infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray imaging that allows research to see things that cannot be seen in regular light. It has helped researchers understand what materials medieval artists used to create their works, and how the look of this art has changed over centuries.

The Math behind Portolan Charts

In 2014 Discover Magazine profiled the research of John Hessler, a cartographer working at the Library of Congress. He was able to figure out how medieval mapmakers were able to create portolan charts with amazing accuracy. He was eventually able to understand the mathematical computations behind the maps and the reasons why they had the same inaccuracies. Hessler tells the magazine, “The development of these maps revolutionized how people perceived space, much like Google Earth has done in our lifetime. Understanding how the technology was developed gives us insight into how we got here, and perhaps into where we’re going.”

What can dirt on pages tell us about medieval manuscripts and their readers?

Kathryn Rudy from the University of St Andrews has invented a technique that can measure which pages in medieval manuscripts are the dirtiest, and therefore, the most read. Using a machine known as a densitometer, she is able to measure the darkness of a reflecting surface on these pages and reveal a wealth of information on how they were used, including pinpointing the moment that people fell asleep reading the same book.

Understanding the Black Death

Researchers and scholars from around the world have been collaborating to learn more about the Black Death and plagues that struck the medieval world. The efforts to better understand its epidemiology have led to the reconstruction of the genome of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, and the discovery that the Black Death and the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century were caused by the same bacterium, and even how it became so virulent. Beyond understanding how diseases worked in the past, this research will also be used so that medical experts can better deal with future epidemics.

Digitization of Medieval Manuscripts

Libraries and archives around the world have been using the latest computer technology to digitize tens of thousands of medieval manuscripts. As techniques for scanning and viewing these manuscripts improve, the audience interested in seeing them online has risen dramatically, including researchers who want to study them as well as the general public, who are fascinated by the beauty and skills of these works.

What we learned about Richard III

The amazing discovery of Richard III, the 15th century King of England whose body went missing for centuries, brought together experts from a wide range of fields. It began with the historians who figured out where his remains were located and the archaeologists who made the dig in Leicester. More team members were brought in, including the geneticists who were able to match Richard’s DNA with a living ancestor and confirm his identity. They were able to learn a vast amount of detail about his life and death, including what he ate, what wounds caused his death, and even how he looked like.

Learn more about these projects:

The AncientBiotics Project – testing medieval remedies to treat modern day superbugshttp://www.medievalists.net/2015/03/30/anglo-saxon-medicine-is-able-to-kill-modern-day-superbug-researchers-find/

The Medieval Warfare on the Grid Projecthttp://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/mwgrid/

Advanced decagonal quasicrystal geometryhttp://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/03/medieval-islamic-architecture-presages-20th-century-mathematics/

The Ordered Universe Projecthttp://ordered-universe.com/

What can dirt on pages tell us about medieval manuscripts and their readers?http://www.medievalists.net/2012/04/23/dirty-books-quantifying-patterns-of-use-in-medieval-manuscripts-using-a-densitometer/

Discovering Old Sarumhttp://www.southampton.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/old_sarum_and_stratford_sub_castle.page

Using Lasers on Gothic Cathedralshttp://mappinggothic.org/

Medieval Technology goes to Marshttp://www.aber.ac.uk/en/research/excellence/impact/mars/

Knowing the Colour of Your Eyeshttp://www.medievalists.net/2013/01/14/new-dna-test-can-determine-eye-and-hair-colour-for-people-who-lived-in-the-middle-ages/

Understanding the Black Deathhttp://socserv.mcmaster.ca/adna/research-projects/yersinia-pestis-genomics/

Medievalists and Climate Changehttp://www.medievalists.net/2015/07/09/medievalist-helps-scientists-rewrite-climate-records/

What we learned about Richard IIIhttps://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/science.html

The Math behind Portolan Chartshttp://discovermagazine.com/2014/june/14-the-mapmakers-mystery

Revealing the picture in medieval arthttp://www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/science/coll_res/

Digitization of Medieval Manuscriptshttp://digitizedmedievalmanuscripts.org/

Medieval Studies and STEM

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