Medieval Prestige at Drury

One of the most complicated aspects of being a medievalist is that the term “Middle Ages” frequently brings to mind the most toxic connotations. In September the Middle Ages found center stage at the presidential debates when Trump claimed “medieval ISIS” as America’s worst fear, and later suggested that ISIS’s beheadings, and other extreme horrors, were indicative of “medieval times.” In the same week HBO’s John Oliver claimed that women in the Middle Ages had no rights. But these statements suggest so much more about modern ideas than reflect the medieval. By linking the European Middle Ages to horrible deeds and barbarism, we overlook the ways that the modern era employs the Middle Ages to suggst power, prestige, and tradition.

This goes beyond the raised right-arm blessing from our Chaplain as faculty process in priestly garb on Drury’s Founder’s Day. Consider the Drury University seal, positioned on the podium at Clara Thompson Hall, where speakers argue, debate, and enlighten. drury-seal-jpgIt is embossed with Latin to indicate its purpose, date, and identity, and also to invest the podium and the audience with authenticity. Just as kings, abbesses, and cities displayed their power and prestige affixed to medieval parchment, Drury equally relies on visual imagery to suggest a noble educational experience rooted in the traditions of the past. And when Drury sends admissions materials to prospective students, it affixes a quartered heraldic emblem, also featured on the web, on its promotional material. These visual reminders of the medieval meld with other aspects of the university—tuition, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, graduation robes, the liberal arts, and professors as doctors—that celebrate a nine hundred-year tradition.

This link to the Middle Ages can also be found by visiting a prominent building on Drury’s campus. With the first foundation stone for Pearsons Hall laid in 1901, builders acted on architectural choices made by Henry Van Brunt of Van Brunt and Howe in Kansas City. As the university searched for prestige, it found comfort in the Middle Ages, an architectural choice used by many East Coast universities such as Princeton, Bryn Mawr, and the University of Pennsylvania, and closer to home, the University of Missouri-Columbia and Washington University in St. Louis. Thee campuses used an architectural style that highlighted the heavy gates, bell-towers, and crenellations of English Gothic. Anyone interested in these features should check out Graham Chapel at Washington University, or Blair Hall at Princeton, which feature medieval towers. Although Pearsons Hall is not inherently medieval, it retains design elements that were selected to reflect the European Middle Ages and linked the university to historical traditions of learning and medieval universities as centers for the liberal arts. Paden Chambers, Drury Architecture alumnus and Landmarks Board member, related that the building was designed to show off Drury as an institution of integrity rather than a “backwoods teachers college.”

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It is no accident then that the ubiquitous medieval quatrefoil, or four-leaf design, can be found throughout Pearsons. Check out the beautiful wood staircase (to the side and below) that replicates those found on the Milan Cathedral’s buttress or the large glass window facing Central Avenue. Whether designing stone, wood, or wrought-iron quatrefoil (and there are 177 total) the architects of Pearsons revealed their design choices to draw on the medieval. The large window features foliated circles as well as a center stained glass window. The Latin phrase Christo et Humanitati with an oil lamp emblem radiates light on every student walking up or down the Pearsons staircase. At the top of the glass window a cross was placed. The set of windows, once open to the street and now protected by modern glass, forms a Romanesque arch. Above this window arch are eight small Gothic architectural features, designed to look like they might hold saints or statues yet impossible because of the flattened niche. The architects chose devices to reflect the medieval past but kept the architecture Protestant.

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As a medievalist, I have long admired these historic features of the building. But writing this blog encouraged me to take a closer look, and also to step back to the street. Looking up high on the exterior, I noticed a crenelated roofline that creates a larger tower structure with two miniature tower buttresses and grapevine stone carvings, all placed there to signal the medieval past. When Woodrow Wilson spoke about Princeton, he celebrated the university’s connection to the Middle Ages: by the “simple devise of building . . . we seem to have added to our Princeton the age of Oxford and Cambridge.”[1] In the Ozarks we can appreciate the way that the Middle Ages deeply touches our quest for knowledge and follow in the liberal arts tradition of making ourselves free to question, discuss, and debate as emerged in the twenty-five medieval universities founded between 1100 and 1300. We need not imagine black rats every time we get medieval. Here’s to celebrating the medieval past as it surrounds us, whether admiring the beautiful windows in Pearsons, using the word quatrefoil in your next discussion to elevate your own prestige, or merely checking out the miniature door underneath the Pearsons stairwell (Harry Potter, anyone?).
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Dr. Wolbrink is a history professor and the program coordinator for the Medieval and Renaissance studies program, a 15 hour interdisciplinary minor that can be earned while fulfilling your general education classes. Her office is in 102 Pearsons hall.

[1] . Barksdale Maynard, Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency (New Haven: Yale University Press), 88.

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