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Engineering the Medieval Achievement (EMA) is a collaborative and multi-disciplinary effort to bring the contours of medieval technology to life for MIT undergraduates studying the development of the medieval economy, and/or the construction of medieval monuments. It is especially designed to supplement the curriculum in courses centered on the Middle Ages now offered across three departments: History, Economics, and Architecture. It is possible that some components of the EMA would also be of interest for other subjects including a relevant historical component such as environmental history, or in structural, mechanical, or ocean engineering. The project will make accessible both primary source materials and problem-based modules covering a variety of different technological applications ranging from agricultural implements and techniques, to land reclamation, to the building of mills, ships, and cathedrals. Traditional text sources, archeological materials, aerial photographs of field and earthwork patterns, structural analyses of monumental construction, art historical photographs and studies, maps of both the built and natural environments, and climate and land-use data, will be brought together in a format accessible to students not otherwise familiar with either multiple European languages or the jargon of the many different sub-disciplines represented here. Students will be able to explore in depth, and on their own, particular technological problems whose solutions carried tremendous potential for both economic growth and the foundation of a community infrastructure which survives in the main to this day.

Content of EMA

Engineering the Medieval Achievement will build upon the primary source based and example driven curriculum which I have developed over fifteen years of teaching the HASS-D subject 21h.416/14.70J (History: Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and which Prof. Ochsendorf has been employing in his subject 4.448 (Architecture: Special Problems in Structural Design). Both of these courses already utilize a number of Web-based resources which exist either at MIT or at other publicly available scholarly sites. In particular, students in my subject on the medieval economy are now required to consult primary source text documents such as charters, letters, sermons, travel descriptions, business manuals and royal decrees, as well as maps, plan drawings, aerial photographs, and paintings which I have collected for the course Stellar site. They are also encouraged to engage with historical data in one of their papers for the course. In a similar fashion, Prof. Ochsendorf has been developing web tools for the structural analysis of ribs, vaults, and buttresses for his students in the historic structures course so that they can experiment with the ‘primary sources’ of his discipline. The ‘virtual’ master builder that he has designed in conjunction with his graduate students can be found at: http://web.mit.edu/masonry/interactiveThrust/. This tool allows the students to reconstruct digitally the three dimensional structures which before they could only study in two dimensional photographs.

In addition to Prof. Ochsendorf’s own site, there are numerous publicly accessible Web sites concerned with the historical development of architectural styles. These sites often include vast photo archives, and sometimes structural drawings and technical analyses as well. Not surprisingly, scholars in the fields of art and architectural history have been at the forefront of the move to utilize the capacity of the Web for the dissemination of visual information. However, much of this content is provided without context; that is to say, that photo archives are often little more than that. They do not especially compel students to work out the complexities of building decisions, or allow them to fully appreciate the achievement represented by Romanesque and Gothic construction techniques in a pre-industrial setting.

Prof. Anne McCants
Massachussets Institute of Technology, History Department

Background: Notre Dame de Paris