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A Mind for the Medieval

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Most UW undergraduates spend their first two years exploring potential majors. Not Kathleen Noll. By the time she arrived on campus as a freshman, she knew she wanted to attend graduate school in history.  Only one question remained: ancient or medieval history?

“In high school I started to explore what history was, and started reading history books for fun,” Noll recalls. Her high school history courses began with the early modern era, so she explored “all the rest” on her own—everything from ancient Egypt to the medieval Bayeux tapestry.

Kathleen Noll

Kathleen Noll completed two senior honors theses, though only one was required. The second, she says, was “almost just for fun.” Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Noll, a double major in history and classics (Latin), is the 2014 Dean’s Medalist in the Social Sciences, selected on the basis of academic performance and faculty recommendations. “She is one of the most driven and advanced undergraduates I have ever had the pleasure to teach, while remaining completely unpretentious and generous toward others,” says Charity Urbanski, lecturer in medieval history, who supervised Noll’s history honors thesis.

Asked to explain her fascination with history, Noll makes it clear she can’t do the question justice in a few sentences—but then she makes a valiant attempt. “I enjoy interacting with the past,” she says. “I have always enjoyed reading and looking at the things that were created in the past. From there I like to discover what things are somewhat timeless and what things really do change.”

Noll realized early on that she enjoyed writing and research. To read primary source materials from the ancient and medieval eras, she began studying Latin as a UW sophomore and continued her immersion through the Classics Department’s study abroad program in Rome. She has since studied Old French and Occitan, both useful for medieval texts. And she has continued with modern French, which she studied in high school. “Old French and Occitan are both Latin-based languages, so with modern French and Latin, they are pretty easy to piece together,” says Noll. “If I have a dictionary, I can usually make sense of things.” She also took an intensive summer course on reading German.

She is one of the most driven and advanced undergraduates I have ever had the pleasure to teach, while remaining completely unpretentious and generous toward others.

All those languages have been invaluable for Noll’s thesis research. She completed two senior honors theses—one for history and another for Latin—though only one thesis was required. The second, she says, was “almost just for fun.”

Noll’s history thesis focused on the Statute of Merton, a legal document dating back to 1236 England. The Statute, concerning the legitimacy of children born before their parents married, represented a conflict between the Church and state. The Church believed that the children were legitimized when their parents married; the state argued that they were not. While the disagreement appeared to be institutional in nature, Noll’s thesis asserts that two individuals—a high-ranking individual in the judiciary and a bishop—were at the heart of the conflict.

Kathleen Noll

Kathleen Noll, 2014 Dean's Medalist in the Social Sciences. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

“My paper focused on some letters written between the two about this debate,” says Noll. “From these letters I realized I was looking at the personal origins of an institutional struggle.” While Noll was by no means the first historian to research the Statute of Merton, she was the first to focus on the letters, which she learned about through a footnote in someone else’s work. “A lot of people had cited the letters but had never really looked at them in depth and picked apart the language,” she says.

Noll’s history professors were wowed by her paper, including John Findlay, John Calhoun Smith Memorial Endowed Professor, who notes that Noll “takes a very complicated topic and makes it lucid even to non-specialists…. And she brings fresh insight to a conversation that heretofore had been solely the province of established scholars.”

On the heels of that history thesis, Noll tackled a second thesis for her Latin major. By this time, she had decided to pursue graduate studies in medieval history, so she saw the paper as her “last hurrah in the classics world.” She focused on the women of the Roman imperial family over a 50-year period beginning around 27 BCE, studying them through the lens of two historians from later in the Roman era.  “I was interested in how the historians were influenced by their own times,” says Noll.

Noll has presented her research at conferences and symposia, including the UW Mary Gates Undergraduate Research Symposium and the Northwest regional conference for Phi Alpha Theta (PAT), the national history honors society whose UW chapter she led as president this year. “Those speaking opportunities have been extremely helpful, since I’ll be expected to do conference presentations as a graduate student,” she says.

This fall, Noll will begin a PhD program in medieval history at Northwestern University, on a full scholarship. “We are going to hear a good deal more from Kathleen,” says Alain Gowing, professor and chair of the Department of Classics, who led the study abroad program in which Noll participated. “She is a student of whom we should all be very proud.”