Sean Gilsdorf

I am an historian of medieval and early modern Europe, with a particular interest in the intellectual, political, and ecclesiastical history of Merovingian, Carolingian and post-Carolingian society, c. 600-1100, medieval material and manuscript culture, and the relationship between Africa and the wider medieval world. Since January 2016, I have been Administrative Director and Lecturer on Medieval Studies at Harvard University; previously I was the Program Administrator for the Committee on Medieval Studies and a Lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature. I also have taught at Mt. Holyoke College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the College of the Holy Cross, Smith College, the University of Richmond, and the University of Chicago, from which I received my Ph.D. in history in 2007.


In my recent book The Favor of Friends: Intercession and Aristocratic Politics in Carolingian and Ottonian Europe (Brill Publishers, 2014), I explore the role of intercession (third-party advocacy) within early medieval political culture, analyzing how the interpersonal and inter-group relationships between rulers, intercessors, and petitioners were depicted in iconography, historical accounts, letters, and official documents. I argue that intercession was not simply a tool of "feudal" politics (as many scholars have assumed), but a fundamental expression of early medieval rulership, not only because of its practical benefits to its participants, but because it offered a compelling model of political interaction in which hierarchy and comity worked in integrated, connected, and mutually-reinforcing ways.

The visual manifestation of these relationships is the focus of my article "Deēsis Deconstructed: Imagining Intercession in the Medieval West," which explores the adoption and re-configuration of a Byzantine iconographic theme within early medieval Western European culture. I also am completing Seeing and Believing: The Visions and Temptations of Otloh of St. Emmeram (under contract with the University of Toronto Press), which explores questions of religion and identity through the writings of the eleventh-century monk and raconteur Otloh of St. Emmeram, whose greatest works wove together monastic spirituality with visionary fervor and autobiographical self-reflection. 

I now am developing, in collaboration with my Harvard colleague Daniel Lord Smail, Medieval Object Lessons: The Harvard Digital Library of the Middle Ages (MOL). This new digital history initiative ultimately will offer its users over 100 objects from medieval Europe and the Middle East in interactive three-dimensional formats, accompanied by full descriptions, links to related online materials, bibliographies, and suggested classroom and curricular uses. The library, the prototype of which currently is in development, will be available to educators at all levels, ranging from K-12 to college, allowing them to incorporate the Middle Ages far more easily and concretely in their lectures and lesson plans. Loosely inspired by Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects, MOL is not intended to be canonical or comprehensive, but instead representative and metonymic: that is, it will present a matrix of time and space in which each place-period can be encountered and explored through the medium of discrete objects and the stories and uses surrounding them. As such, MOL is aimed not at medieval specialists but at non-medievalists, providing them with distinct, striking, and appealing ports of entry into an historical and cultural territory often treated cursorily (if at all) in textbooks and standard lesson plans.

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