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New Late Antique-Medieval Studies Major Picks Up Where Classics Leaves Off

Statue of Emperor Constantine from the Capitoline Museums; photograph by Nick Thompson (Creative Commons)

Statue of Emperor Constantine from the Capitoline Museums; photograph by Nick Thompson (Creative Commons)

The Late Antique-Medieval Studies (LAMS) Major, adopted this past spring, is throwing a 1700th-anniversary symposium in honor of Roman Emperor Constantine--whose reign marks a good starting point for the time period LAMS covers--and his Edict of Milan, which in February 313 marked official tolerance of Christianity by the Roman Empire.

The symposium, which is free and open to the public, begins with a welcome talk by Ray Van Dam of the University of Michigan on Friday, February 22, at 6 p.m. in  Smith Campus Center, room 201 (170 E. Sixth St., Claremont), and continues with a full day of symposium sessions on Saturday, February 23, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Pearsons Hall, room 101 (551 N. College Ave., Claremont). All events take place in. The symposium is sponsored by the William F. Podlich Distinguished Visitor Program at Claremont McKenna College and the Ena H. Thompson Fund at Pomona College, and is part of a two-year cycle of symposia planned by LAMS.

LAMS is an intercollegiate, multidisciplinary major that focuses on the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is housed under and modeled after the Classics Department, rather than History, for three reasons, explains Professor Kenneth Wolf: it is multidisciplinary, it is focused on the Mediterranean and Near East like Classics, and it requires three semesters of Greek, Latin or Arabic, which may help students who go on to graduate school in this field. The History Major does not require a language.

Hanna McGinnis '15 was inspired by Wolf’s Saints and Society class to declare LAMS her major. “I find it a particularly great major because it is so interdisciplinary, allowing students to take courses in history, religious studies, art history, literature, and a variety of languages, amongst other fields,” says McGinnis, who is also interested in romance languages and hopes to study abroad in France. “This has given me the freedom to explore medieval times through a variety of subject matters.”

Wolf, who is a professor of both classics and history, notes that this major is unusual at a small college, but that The Claremont Colleges were in a unique position to create it because of faculty resources. “There is a natural cluster of professors whose specialties are tied to the broader Mediterranean world between the first and sixteenth centuries,” says Wolf. For example, Shane Bjornlie at Claremont McKenna College, who led planning for the symposium with Wolf, teaches Late Antique and medieval history; Ahmed Alwishah at Pitzer College covers medieval Islamic philosophy; Zayn Kassam at Pomona teaches Islamic theology; and Sara Adler at Scripps covers Italian and Renaissance literature. Access to Arabic language classes at CMC is also a crucial component. The major has 14 faculty members and five affiliated faculty members at four of the five Claremont undergraduate colleges. “I like to say it’s a bunch of stars and we formed a new constellation out of them by creating LAMS,” says Wolf.

Daniel Martin '14 was an early champion of this major and the first student to sign on when it was approved last April.  Martin started college with an interest in history and religious studies, which was piqued by courses like Ancient History and Medieval Spain, the latter with Wolf. “Medieval Spain is unquestionably the course that solidified my decision to become a LAMS major…. it demonstrated the potential of approaching history with the tools that studying religion have given us.”

Martin also notes how useful it has been to study Latin. “Doing historical work based on the actual language that was used and combining philology and religious studies into my historical repertoire has given me a greater appreciation for the work of history, and I think that my ability to engage in scholarly work is incredibly magnified by these skills,” says Martin, who is developing a summer research project on Bernard of Clairvaux.

Wolf is trained as a medieval European historian but has long held an interest in LAMS scholarship, teaching a Medieval Mediterranean survey since 1990. That class, says Wolf, “is really, in some way, the seed from which LAMS grew because it requires a broader perception of the Middle Ages, one that not only includes the Latin world of medieval Europe, but the Greek world of the Byzantine empire and the Arabic world of the Islamic caliphates.” Though the area was no longer united politically after the fall of the Roman Empire, “there were still all kinds of cultural, economic and technical exchange, and it didn’t make sense to me to suddenly ignore those shores of the Mediterranean.”

Also of note is the time period – the Late Antique period, which goes from 200 to about 800 or 900 and is a relatively recent development in the study of history. It, says Wolf, is an important historic bridge between the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. “When we came up with the idea of LAMS, we wanted to make it clear that we were trying to connect the classic world with the medieval world and see not just the points where there are ruptures, but also the points of continuity.”

Martin values his relationships with professors across many departments of the 5Cs, and says the major’s interdisciplinary and collaborative nature and specific constraints allow a deeper scholarship. “The argument has been made to me that doing this kind of breadth means you don’t get any depth, but in fact it’s precisely the opposite,” says Martin. “When it comes to LAMS, by focusing on a geographically and temporally constrained area, the interdisciplinary approach creates more depth, and yields a much richer and fuller picture of life in the Medieval Mediterranean world. In a sense, breadth = depth.”

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