Carleton history professor Bill North estimates that his narrow office contains 3,000 books shelved by topic: ancient, medieval, and Byzantine history, art history, philosophy, Latin and Greek texts, travel accounts, and manuscript studies.
Although North went to Princeton to study wildlife biology, “a series of courses and great professors introduced me to questions and periods of history, like Byzantium and Late Antiquity, that were fascinating, difficult, and important,” he recalls. “I discovered that I wanted to understand—and to help others understand—why people in the past acted the way they did and how different societies coped with their problems.”
Works by Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Evagrius Ponticus, Dorotheus of Gaza, Pachomius, and the Desert Fathers fill his shelves. They’re featured in his 100-level course “Saints, Sinners, and Philosophers in Late Antiquity,” which often is scheduled at 8:30 a.m., notes North. “We start the day right with orange juice, doughnuts, and asceticism.”
- Bill North: At Carleton since 1999, North is an associate professor of history and codirector of medieval and Renaissance studies with his colleague and wife, Victoria Morse. North teaches history of the late Roman Empire, early Middle Ages, and Byzantium. He’s also faculty coordinator of Carleton’s Mellon Mays program, which supports and encourages students from underrepresented groups to pursue PhDs.
- Viking ship: This Playmobil toy once belonged to North’s daughter. “A lot of my students often discover an interest in the medieval world through games, toys, and creative anachronisms,” North says. The ship rests on cassettes of Gregorian chant and early music.
- Current research: North is editing the works of Richard of Préaux, a little-known abbot who produced biblical commentary in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. “He talks about the tension between the active and contemplative life. He’d like to be commenting on the Bible, but he’s got to make sure the monastery is functioning,” says North. “Modern academics read him with a fair amount of sympathy.”
- Book: This is a facsimile of the Vyšehrad Codex, a late 11th-century illuminated manuscript of the Gospels produced for the Duke of Bohemia. “I use facsimiles when I’m teaching because they give students a feel for the actual size, weight, and layout of the original,” says North.
- Scroll: This facsimile of the marriage charter of Theophano and Otto II is approximately 5' by 3'. The original was produced in Rome in 972. “It’s basically a prenup between a Byzantine princess and a German emperor,” says North.
- T-shirt: Six years ago, Carl Nelson ’07 redesigned the T-shirt given to concentrators in medieval and Renaissance studies. The front portrays characters from the Middle Ages, and the quote on the back is from the Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor, a treatise by a 12th-century scholar who offered this advice: “Learn everything and you will see that nothing is superfluous.”
“That seems like a good sentiment for a liberal arts college,” says North. “We also designed a mug that comes with the T-shirt. It’s almost like public radio.”
- Reader: North translated Latin and Greek sources along with French, German, and Italian secondary articles and compiled them into a reader for a five-week course titled “The Church, Papacy, and Empire in the Age of Reform.” “A lot of the materials I want to teach are not available in English,” North says. “Translation is also part of my scholarly work.”
- Small triptych: “I teach about Byzantine icons, and I purchased this one in Istanbul,” says North, who received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2011 for travel in Turkey and Greece to support his courses.
- Videos: North uses illustrator David Macaulay’s Cathedral and Castle videos to orient students to the construction of these sorts of buildings.
- Portrait: As a thank-you gift, North’s former student Lina Feuerstein ’12 and her mother, who is an artist, created a rendering of North on an illuminated manuscript facsimile, which includes a quote about the importance of historical research.
- Meerkat: Two students from North’s 2005 “Methods” seminar decorated this stuffed animal to resemble him. Sam Feder ’07 was inspired by a meerkat exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo, and Anne Abramowitz ’07 knit the sweater and scarf as a nod to North’s typical attire. “It’s a benevolent presence,” North says. “Visitors relax when they see that staring down at them.”