For some people, the Middle Ages conjures up grotesque images of deadly plague and constant wars.

But for several Stanford scholars, this period, which lasted between roughly the 5th and 15th centuries, represents a vibrant time in humanity’s history that is still shrouded in mystery.

At Stanford, a group of humanities professors and their students have been analyzing ancient manuscripts, poring over old texts and examining resurfaced artifacts to better understand how current societies and cultures developed. They have also been making the Middle Ages come alive today by recreating medieval music and testing old food recipes.

In order to make this research possible, the Stanford Libraries’ staff has developed a growing trove of medieval artifacts and documents, many of which have also been digitized and are now available online to the public and other scholars around the world.

(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Examining ancient texts

Stanford medievalists have made unexpected discoveries about people and their practices during the Middle Ages by analyzing medieval documents and artifacts.

For example, historian Rowan Dorin’s research of unusual 14th-century texts showed that there was a lot more sharing of knowledge going on among the medieval societies around the Mediterranean Sea than was previously thought.

Understanding people’s obsession with crystals

Stanford medievalist Marisa Galvez is examining the origins of people’s fascination with crystals. She finds that crystals inspired the writing and poetry of some medieval authors in unexpected ways.

Solving the mystery of an unusual medieval text

Rare 14th-century texts historian Rowan Dorin found in Stanford’s Green Library show an enthusiastic exchange of knowledge between medieval people, going against the belief that the Middle Ages was an ignorant time.

Stanford scholar celebrates Western culture’s open-access tradition

The historic struggle for greater access to knowledge and the debates over intellectual property rights have a legacy that should inform today’s digital era, writes Stanford education Professor John Willinsky.

Medieval songs reflect humor in amorous courtships

Through a new translation of medieval songs, Stanford German studies Professor Kathryn Starkey reveals an unconventional take on romance.  

Stanford historian says falsified medieval history helped create feminism

Through research into the first historians of medieval Europe, Professor Paula Findlen discovers that an interest in women's history began much earlier than is assumed.

Medieval monsters live on today

Female monsters in medieval literature find new forms in modern movies, literature, comic books and music. Undergraduate student Rukma Sen is curious why those themes have such staying power.

Stanford scholar discovers unknown Magna Carta scribe

Manuscript expert Elaine Treharne shows  that one of the world’s most famous documents was written not by the king’s scribes, but by a cathedral scribe outside the central court.

Priests found spiritual satisfaction by serving nuns, Stanford medieval historian says

A study of medieval texts and imagery by Stanford history Professor Fiona Griffiths counters commonly held beliefs about misogynistic practices in medieval Europe.

student garnishing wood pigeon while classmate takes photo
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Bringing medieval feasts to life

Understanding how people lived during the Middle Ages also involves recreating some of the daily practices they have written about, according to Stanford scholars Marisa Galvez and Jesse Rodin.

For example, students in a class led by Galvez and Rodin recreated medieval meals, including the recipe for wood pigeon on toast that is being prepared in this photo. Other Stanford professors have also provided hands-on experiences for their students, like translating ancient texts from their original languages.

“Interpreting the senses of the Middle Ages by experiencing the multi-sensory feast – cooking, tasting and smelling food, listening to music and making banquet table theatricals – captivates the students and entices their curiosity about that historical period.”

—Marisa Galvez

Associate Professor of French and Italian

Stanford musicologist brings the 15th century to life

Stanford’s Jesse Rodin reanimates musical experiences of the distant past through performance.

Students recreate medieval feasts in new course

As part of a new humanities course, undergraduate students replicate the recipes and the ambience of ancient feasts in order to learn about how people lived in the Middle Ages.

Stanford scholar explores Arabic obsession with language

Comparative literature professor Alexander Key finds that the Arab world had a head start on the West when it comes to understanding how language works.

Image credit: Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Making artifacts accessible

Researching the Middle Ages can be challenging because many of the original medieval documents and objects are hard to access.

But, through various partnerships, Stanford Libraries staff has digitized hundreds of medieval materials and artifacts, some housed at Stanford and others at libraries around the world.

One recent effort included the creation of a new online exhibition, “Medieval Collections at Stanford.” The exhibition features photos of a handful of objects and manuscripts from the Stanford Libraries and the Cantor Arts Center dating from 300 to 1600 CE.

Bringing medieval texts to a contemporary audience

A new website curated by Stanford faculty and students, the Global Medieval Sourcebook, translates medieval literature into English for the first time.

Stanford’s medieval studies give the past a digital future

Major university libraries and museums snapped up many of the best medieval manuscripts and art long ago, but Stanford is now staking its own claim in medieval studies. Stanford is digitizing images from libraries around the world, and it has assembled a cadre of scholars who are expanding the very definition of medieval.

In new online course, Stanford scholar delves into the secrets of medieval texts

Digital tools, including a free, public online manuscript training course, are allowing English professor and medieval manuscript scholar Elaine Treharne to share her expertise well beyond traditional classroom walls.

Stanford exhibition spotlights medieval ‘world of words’

A 2014 Stanford Libraries exhibition showcased Stanford’s medieval and early modern manuscript holdings, including a number of recent acquisitions, to show how secular learning was shared and spread throughout the Middle Ages.