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Students, Faculty Collaborate on Houghton Exhibit

Professor Beverly Kienzle and students produce online exhibit, with highlights at the Houghton Library.


How did one professor turn student coursework into an internationally recognized exhibit at the Houghton Library? 


Professor Beverly Kienzle—John H. Morison Professor of the Practice in Latin and Romance Languages, Lecturer on Medieval Studies and Faculty Director of Language Studies for the Divinity School—was inspired by final-exam essays and papers from her graduate courses on Latin paleography and medieval sermons to create an online exhibit. An accompanying Houghton exhibit of seven highlighted manuscripts features descriptions written by her students as well. “My particular area of interest is medieval sermons, and it is incredible how many are available right here in the Houghton Library,” Kienzle said. “With the improved cataloging and manuscripts available digitally, it is even easier to access them.”


Kienzle specializes in paleography, the study of deciphering, reading and dating historical manuscripts. She began teaching this course 20 years ago; its subject matter lends itself to interdisciplinary interests such as religion, history, literature, paleography, music, politics, history of art and classics.


John Zaleski, a PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion, assisted Kienzle with the exhibit, writing its introduction, selecting manuscripts for display and editing essays. He helped Kienzle search Houghton’s extensive collection for material to feature in the online exhibit, which includes 39 manuscripts and three incunabula (books printed before 1501).


“It is great to be able to walk across campus and find the exact manuscripts you’re looking for,” said Timothy Baker, whose essay is included in the online exhibit. Baker is a doctor of theology candidate at Harvard Divinity School. “It’s fascinating for me to read what the writers’ contemporaries found interesting in these manuscripts—because what they highlight may be different from what I find important,” Baker said.


Zaleski pointed out a manuscript containing sermons written by a Carthusian preacher—rare because Carthusian monks followed the strictest rules regarding silence and enclosure. “We were able to determine that the sermons were, in fact, written by a Carthusian preacher, because the text referred to ‘our Carthusian Order,’ and ‘our father St. Hugh of Lincoln,’ a Carthusian monk,” he said. “It was unexpected to find manuscripts of sermons written by a Carthusian.”


Katherine Wrisley Shelby, who earned a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2012 and is currently a doctoral student in theology at Boston College, contributed “Franciscan Preaching in the High Middle Ages” to the online exhibit. One of the manuscripts she transcribed and analyzed dates from the 13th century. 


“When I read the students’ final papers, I thought ‘This is it.’ I knew they would be the foundation for the exhibit I had wanted to do for many years,” Kienzle said. “And when I proposed the idea to the students, their eyes lit up.”


Kienzle will be honored at a conference on medieval studies on September 21 and 22 at the Barker Center—the speakers include some of the world’s leading medieval studies scholars. Students will also present posters on their research.


Visit the exhibit on the second floor of the Houghton Library. Explore the online exhibit.