Laura Ackerman Smoller Named Fellow of Medieval Academy of America: NewsCenter

January 13, 2022

Rochester history professor Laura Ackerman Smoller speaks to students during a class visit to the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation in 2017. Ackerman is recognized for her work in the field of medieval studies. (Photo University of Rochester/J. Adam Fenster)


The Rochester historian also won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write her third book.

Laura Ackerman Smoller, chair of the University of Rochester’s history department and specialist in medieval and Renaissance Europe, is on a roll.

This month, she was named a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, the highest honor the academy bestows on North American medievalists. The same day she learned she had been named to the Academy Scholars Class of 2022, she also received official notification for a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to write her third book. Over the next year, she will be released from administrative and teaching duties to work on the project, an exploration of the relationship between astrology and prophecy in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

From astrology and the apocalypse to saints and miracles

Reacting to her selection as a member of the Medieval Academy, Smoller says she is “intimidated by the pantheon of medieval scholars whose names are enshrined in the Book of Fellows”.

Among them is the late John Murdoch, one of her PhD mentors at Harvard University, whose induction she attended in 1994. In March, COVID-19 permitting, she will have the chance to adding his name to the book at the academy’s induction ceremony. in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In a letter of nomination, an academy member described Smoller as “one of the most creative and perceptive students of the scientific and spiritual imagination to ever enter our profession.”

Medieval Academy book signatures

Smoller is the second scholarship holder of the Medieval Academy of America in Rochester: Richard Kaeuper, Franklin W. & Gladys I. Clark Professor Emeritus of History, was named a fellow of the academy in 2015. Since 1926, new inductees have been invited to sign the academy. Liber Sociorum Academiae Mediaevalis Americanae, known colloquially as the Red Book of Fellows. Kaeuper’s signature is lower right.

An expert at the intersection of magic, science and religion in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Rochester historian follows two major themes in her research: astrology and apocalyptic prophecy, and saints and miracles.

His first book, History, prophecy and stars: the Christian astrology of Pierre d’Ailly, 1350-1420 (Princeton University Press, 1994), traces the use of astrology by a French cardinal to investigate the time of the supposed end of the world.

His second book, with a memorably macabre title The Saint and the Chopped Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 2014), won the 2016 award The coronica International Book Award, an annual international prize for the best book on medieval Hispanic languages, literatures and cultures. Exploring the canonization and cult of Valencian monk Vincent Ferrer – a fiery late medieval apocalyptic preacher who died in 1419 and was canonized in 1455 – Smoller traces the saint’s various meanings from the time of his death in Brittany until its appropriation by the Dominican friars in the Spanish colonies of the New World.

In 2020, Smoller weighed in on the most recent conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – the two planets’ closest rendezvous in around 800 years – from a historical perspective, explaining how the event would have been interpreted by people. of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. .

“In the distant past, Europeans saw planetary alignments as signs of things to come, from famines, earthquakes and floods to the birth of Christ and the ultimate collapse of civilization,” she says. .

Medieval Europe’s blurred boundaries between science and the supernatural

portrait of Laura Smoller

Laura Ackerman Smoller. Photo by Kelly Quinn

Smoller will use his new NEH grant to support his work on a tentatively titled book Astrology and the Sibyls: Paths of Truth in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. According to Smoller, the introduction of astrological theories of religious change in Latin Western Europe began around 1100. His investigation ends around 1600 with the absorption of astrology into polemical apocalypse-laden prophecies that ultimately fueled war. religious following the Reformation.

She argues that those who deliberately merged natural and supernatural knowledge in the Middle Ages helped give rise to new attitudes towards nature that marked the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Scholarship has long rested on the assumption that astrology and prophecy were two very different ways of knowing the future, one based on natural observations and the other derived from supernatural inspiration,” writes Smoller in his NEH project proposal. Examining those who have blurred the lines between scientific observation and the supernatural has much to learn “about the place of the religious and the non-rational in the construction of modern rational and scientific discourse, as well as the myriad and complex ways in which people in the past negotiated their way to discovering the truth.

“Humbled and Grateful”

A distinguished scholar, Smoller is surprisingly modest.

Upon learning that she had been made a member of the Medieval Academy, “my eyes filled with tears”.

“What makes the honor especially humiliating is that you can’t apply,” Smoller says. “You must be nominated by your fellow medievalists; someone has to think enough about your job to take the time to write letters naming you.

Apart from professional significance, the academy also has sentimental significance for Smoller. In 1980, the day she finished her undergraduate course in history at Dartmouth College, her mother gave her the first year of a subscription to Speculum, the MAA’s peer-reviewed publication and arguably the best medieval journal in the world. For the past four years, she has served on the journal’s editorial board.

Meanwhile, Smoller says she is “humbled and grateful” for the opportunity the NEH fellowship offers her to spend an entire year researching and writing about a subject she finds “endlessly fascinating.” With the fellowship beginning this summer, she will step down as chair of the Rochester History Department on June 30.


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Keywords: award, Department of History, Humanities, Laura Ackerman Smoller, School of Arts and Sciences

Category: Society & Culture