Dumbarton Oaks’s 2018 Kalamazoo programming got off to a tremendous start with a session cosponsored by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) and Platinum Latin, the community of late antique and medieval Latinists based at Universität Wien. “Encountering Muhammad in the Medieval West” drew a standing-room-only crowd, with audience members seated in the aisles and standing along the back wall to hear papers by Jessalynn Bird of Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, and Julian Yolles of Harvard University. The session was organized by DOML’s Medieval Latin editor, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Danuta Shanzer of Universität Wien, and by Gregory Hays, associate professor of Classics at the University of Virginia and a member of DOML’s medieval Latin editorial board.
The session was inspired by Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad, a collection of biographies of Muhammad written by Christian authors from the ninth through thirteenth centuries, edited and translated by Julian Yolles and Jessica Weiss and published this May by Harvard University Press (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 51). As Bird and Yolles explained, stories about the prophet not only satisfied the curiosity of Westerners about the foundation of an important and rival religious tradition, but also, by drawing on the tropes and techniques of polemics against Christian heresies, placed that tradition in a familiar framework for the defense of the faith and bolstered the Christian case for the Crusades.
This successful session was followed by “Teaching with Translations,” sponsored by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, organized by DOML Old English Editor Daniel Donoghue, of Harvard University, and featuring papers from Michael R. Kightley of the University of Louisiana–Lafayette and Jay Gates of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. One of the challenges of teaching medieval texts in the classroom is access—students, especially at the undergraduate level, rarely have the specialist training required to study texts in their original language, meaning that for most students, their encounters with medieval books are entirely through translations. Teachers of medieval literature, therefore, face the choice either of concealing the necessary distance this erects between student and text, or, as Kightley and Gates advocated in reflecting on methods for teaching Beowulf, of embracing the problem in order to highlight the ways that great texts generate multiple and multiplying interpretations.