Brandon Cook | February 16, 2017
Thomas E. Burman, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is a scholar of intellectual and religious history, Latin Christendom, and Arab Islam in the medieval and early modern periods. As of the new year, he is also the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute. Before coming to Notre Dame, Burman taught history as Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville where he also served as Riggsby Director of The Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at Washington University in St. Louis as well as at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Among his sundry awards, he is the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of his most outstanding publications include Religious Polemic and the Intellectual History of the Mozarabs, c. 1050-1200 (Brill, 1994); Religion, Text, and Society in Medieval Spain and Northern Europe: Essays in Honor of J. N. Hillgarth, ed. with Mark Meyerson and Leah Shopkow (PIMS, 2002); Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. with Thomas J. Heffernan (Brill, 2005); and Reading the Qur’ân in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) for which he won the American Philosophical Society’s 2007 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History. We sat down with Prof. Burman to talk about his new appointment at Notre Dame.
What excites you about the Middle Ages and your profession?
I was just reflecting on this recently, and the fact is, I really love the whole medievalist project, that intense engagement with all dimensions of medieval culture, and especially with the sources that survive from it in their original, material form. That project began many generations ago primarily as an attempt to understand medieval thought and medieval political and ecclesiastical institutions. But over the last seventy or eighty years—at such places as the Medieval Institute and the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto—it has moved well beyond those beginnings into social and cultural history, vernacular literary studies, and art history. That same project is now expanding into the Mediterranean, expanding into a kind of global Middle Ages model while maintaining its original roots in the Latinate culture of Europe. I love that whole thing. There is a place in the academy, and especially in a Catholic university, for the study of, say, Aquinas’s theology separate from its deep-rootedness in the dense soil of medieval society, politics, and culture. But what I really love is the medievalist's project of grappling with and trying to see all the phenomena of the medieval period—Aquinas and everything else—in a very thick historical context. I was educated to think that way and to view things that way, but it’s also very much my nature. So obviously I'm delighted to have this job at an Institute that has such a commitment to that scholarly venture, and historically has played such a key part in its development.