Immersive Global Middle Ages

The Digital Global Middle Ages

A Convergence of Three Academic Fields

Advancing the digital humanities in 2021 must find a balance that signals a fundamental transition in how we study and represent history and culture that is not so disruptive that humanists are overtaken by new digital processes and tools. True to this spirit, we propose the Immersive Global Middle Ages Institute, which finds an ideal pathway for humanists to assume ownership of digital immersive technologies without abandoning their disciplinary homelands. Experiencing other times, places, and cultures through immersive technology is a flourishing methodology in research and teaching. For example, consider the impact of the NEH’s Institute for Virtual and Augmented Reality for the Digital Humanities (VARDHI) (2018), Walden, A Game (2015), and New Methods of Documenting the Past: Recreating Public Preaching at Paul’s Cross, London, in the Post-Reformation Period (2010-present). Educause’s Horizon Report 2020 notes the exponential growth of XR (cross or mixed reality) in teaching and learning, lauding the potential for improving access to learning, and calls for embedding XR in “holistic instruction and learning designs” (29-30). Unfortunately, the hardware, software, expertise, and institutional support to build these experiences are not evenly available. This Institute is designed as a gateway skill- and capacity-building initiative that cultivates and mentors participants who are seeking to employ immersive technologies in research, teaching, and public outreach for any world region during the Global Middle Ages (500-1500 C.E.). Participants will: 1) Explore and apply a digital Annales School of interdisciplinary research process within the context of the Global Middle Ages; 2) Discuss significant thematic issues that frame and inform how immersive technologies are employed; and 3) Acquire and master the research process, design approach, virtual object creation, city-scale model prototyping, and public delivery of an immersive medieval city/community using SketchUp Pro software. At the completion of the 28-month Institute of virtual and in-person workshops, each of its fourteen participants will deliver and present a substantive project that demonstrates their mastery of immersive digital humanities and medieval global theory, applied methods, and production. The Institute targets ethnically, racially, and gender-diverse academics and researchers in the humanities with new and emergent projects related to the Global Middle Ages, but also welcomes applicants working in cultural institutions, associations, museums, libraries, archives, and other humanities-related organizations.

Advancing the Annales School in the Digital Age

At the foundational level, our Institute invokes the inclusive 20th century French Annales School of historiography and transforms it into a digital theoretical and process-oriented methodology.  This interdisciplinary approach encourages medievalists to understand the “whole” by employing all of our specialties; meaning is assigned to historical events, places, and personages as an outcome of the interrelationships of intellectual and physical artifacts, the environment, and cultures and societies. This structuralist mentalité further enhances our capacities to integrate language and literature specialists, philosophers, geographers, historians, and visual artists who can collaboratively explore Claude Lévi-Strauss’s underlying cultural systems and patterns that support human societies.

A Global Middle Ages: A Dynamic New Field

At the academic intersections of medievalism(s), multidisciplinary epistemologies, and globalization, we propose that the Middle Ages were not only a Western European and Christian experience, but one that was global, interconnected, culturally diverse, and with many centers of cultural and political authority.[1] This crucial acknowledgment foments a new cultural and historical perspective that charts a divergent path within academia that ignites the basis for our Immersive Global Middle Ages Institute.  Our curriculum and workshops first engage with contemporary developments in medieval studies. Professor Catherine Holmes at the University of Oxford is especially noteworthy for her efforts to energize the “defining” and “doing” of an interdisciplinary Global Middle Ages through a series of workshops at British universities, starting under a project titled, “Defining the Global Middle Ages,” in 2012, whereafter it developed in several sessions at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, UK, starting in 2016 and continuing today. She articulates one of the most understandable rationales for the need for studies of the global medieval era, pointing out that the medieval world was not only “complex and diverse,” multiple centers of power and culture meant that the West did not hold a special position over the rest of the world.  Therefore, there are considerable impediments to the exploration of this cultural and historical realm due to significant biases and contrary to what primary sources (manuscripts, archaeology, material culture) reveal.

As is evident, investigations in this realm demand new humanistic approaches and collaborations among literature and linguistic specialists, historians, art historians, and other humanities scholars. This long-delayed and unmet need for integrative studies has persisted in medieval studies since the 1990s. In his seminal article, “Philology in Manuscript Culture,” in the Medieval Academy of America’s Speculum (1990), Stephen G. Nichols communicated researchers’ already nascent appreciation that Western European medieval communities and their manuscript cultures “did not simply live with diversity, but cultivated it”. Some twenty-four years later, in 2014, Professor Nichols continued to argue that the communities we encounter within medieval Europe were neither uniform nor one-dimensional. He adds, “Vernacular literature was not isomorphic, let alone univocal….manuscripts were produced in a variety of centers from the late twelfth to the early sixteenth century” (Nichols, “New Challenges for the New Medievalism,” 12-13). This indicates that medieval global studies must further explore the diversity of cultures within Europe, as well as other distinct minority communities (for example, Professor Martinez-Davila’s studies of Jews and religious converts in 14th- and 15th-century Spain). Cumulatively and inclusively, our Institute turns the fallow grounds of medieval European cultures with a renewed interest in its internal diversity, as well as seeks to cultivate communities in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania.

The Digital Turn and Immersive Technologies

Crucial to this invigoration of the study of the medieval globe is the “digital turn” in scholarship and application of digital humanities approaches that implement immersive experiences – digitally-constructed virtual reality worlds where a user can explore, evaluate, and contemplate the nature of life in historical places and times. Immersive environments include 2D, 3D, virtual reality, and augmented reality environments — all available now at low entry price points for both creators and users. While these interactive worlds are appealing to students, they also offer new perspectives for researchers and opportunities for teachers. For example, archeologists use simulated worlds to see viewsheds and celestial events as ancient human civilizations did, giving them new insights. Language teachers also use virtual worlds to help students immerse themselves in other cultures when travel is inconvenient or impossible.

[1]For an introduction to these scholarly developments, see: Geraldine Heng’s “The Global Middle Ages: An Experiment in Collaborative Humanities, or Imagining the World, 500–1500 C.E.” (2009), Catherine Holmes’ “Introduction: Towards a Global Middle Ages” (2018), R. Howard Bloch et al.’s Rethinking the New Medievalism (2014), Georg G. Iggers et al.’s A Global History of Modern Historiography (2017), Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System (1974), and Matthias Katerbow et al.’s “The Digital Turn in the Sciences and Humanities” (2020)