John Howe established medieval history studies at Texas Tech 40 years ago. Now, as he prepares for retirement, his colleagues are ensuring its survival.
When he came to Lubbock in the fall of 1981, fresh out of his doctoral studies, he was just glad to get a job. As he explains, there were only six or seven positions available in that specialty anywhere in the nation.
But the post came with plenty of challenges.
Medieval history, itself, was a fairly new field of study. It barely existed in this country until after World War II, when members of Europe's intellectual class who'd been driven out by the Nazis came to the U.S. and began teaching a more global perspective.
And even three decades after that, Texas Tech had only the most rudimentary connection to studies of people who lived in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. Many of Howe's early colleagues believed students would find the subject neither interesting nor relevant to their lives.
Howe found the responsibility squarely upon his shoulders to make it relevant, build up the classes and counteract the declining enrollment in history classes overall.
He was successful. He founded Texas Tech's Medieval & Renaissance Studies Center and reformulated the classes, focusing more on the birth of Europe, the Crusades and the age of chivalry. As he says, classes have been full ever since.
And now, as Howe prepares to step back from academia, his colleagues in the Department of History are working to ensure his work lives on in perpetuity.
You may well ask, how is life in medieval Europe relevant to students living in the U.S. in 2022? To Howe, the answer is clear.
“The fact is, if we're to learn from deep history, it should be things relevant to ourselves,” he says. “How our culture came to be, the English language I'm speaking in, the university we're working out of – all these are medieval inventions, and the ways in which the society we live in now came to be. People then were very different and wrestled with different problems, but a lot of the tools we have in our heads are things that were developed back 600, 700, 800 years ago, and to understand how they came to be can be helpful.”
Howe says the juxtaposition of medieval European culture and our culture today can show us more about ourselves than we would see without that point of comparison.
“A lot of the biology is the same: we are born, we mature, we die; the existential questions as to what the hell we're doing here are pretty much the same,” he explains. “If you were just to study the present, and just do contemporary history, you'd be looking in a mirror; you couldn't see anything. And if you were to study something from a completely different culture with a very different set of perspectives, you might not find points of reference.
“But European history, especially the deep European history, is very valuable because it's close enough to us that we can sort of understand what's going on, and it's far enough away from us that we can see that people viewed things and did things differently. Sometimes they saw things we don't, sometimes we see things they don't, but I think it's a very nice form of history.”
He laughingly notes that every faculty member in the history department probably thinks their specialty area is the best area, because that's the one they chose to study. But for him, at least, it's been gratifying to find that students do connect to medieval history.
“That's actually one of the hard things for people to comprehend, that students have lots of points of reference with deep history and things medieval,” he says. “My colleagues who have often chosen to study other fields, because they think they're more interesting, can't always understand that that can be so. But our classes are always filled with students interested in seeing this world that, as I say, is sort of like them and not like them. They can appreciate the historical tension.”
The Howe Lectureship
Whether they agree with his interpretation of medieval history, Howe's colleagues in the department certainly don't doubt his dedication to it.
In fact, they so respect his contributions that, when Howe announced he was heading toward retirement, they began brainstorming ways to ensure his legacy lasts on. Associate professors Abigail Swingen and Jacob Baum suggested creating an annual fall lectureship in Howe's name.
“The idea was to invite someone who studies medieval history, early modern or the immediate post-medieval era,” Swingen explains. “It doesn't necessarily have to be someone who focuses on European history, although it probably will for a little while, but in general, just helping us all to learn about the vibrant scholarship being done in pre-modern history.”
History chair Sean Cunningham signed on immediately.
“John Howe has been a mainstay in the Department of History for more than four decades,” he says. “It is hard to imagine faculty meetings, scholarship receptions or basically anything the department does without him being there. An educator in every sense of the word, John is an internationally recognized scholar and a beloved mentor, and despite his retirement, he plans to remain an active part of all that we do for the next several years. The idea of honoring him in this way just seemed like a wonderful tribute, and I'm so thankful he'll be around to enjoy these initial lectures.”
Cunningham, himself, presented the idea to Howe.
“I wouldn't describe John as a terribly demonstrative or emotional person,” he notes, “but it was a great joy to share the news with him and to see that he was clearly touched by the idea.”
Howe says he was initially surprised and embarrassed.
“I'm not someone who is very good at taking compliments,” he chuckles. “I usually try to get out of them, instead of being gracious as I should be. And so, I had to respond to him a day later and say, ‘It's really nice of people to put this together.' It's a nice tribute, I appreciate that.
“And there is a level where you wonder why the department is celebrating that much to get rid of you,” he jokes. “Nonetheless, that's very kind of them.”
The lectureship, Howe says, demonstrates a key tenet of Texas Tech's personality – one he's been proud to participate in over the last 40 years. Howe, twice president of the Faculty Senate, was a founding member of the Texas Tech Teaching Academy.
“This has been a nice place to work, because there is still a teaching culture,” Howe notes. “It took so long to become a research university that Texas Tech didn't throw out all the ideals of good teaching and the importance of teaching that a lot of top-flight research universities did. As we move toward a research university, I have liked that we've managed to keep some sense that teaching is really important, the state of Texas has hired us to do that and that we should try to do it well.”
A Lecture, A Legacy
The inaugural offering of the John M. Howe Annual Lecture in Medieval & Early Modern History is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday (Sept. 30) in the Student Union Building's Escondido Theater. This year's presenter is Christian Raffensperger, a professor, the chair of history and the Kenneth E. Wray Chair in the Humanities at Wittenberg University in Ohio.
Raffensperger is a leading historian in the medieval history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. His lecture, “Medieval World Turned Upside Down: Rethinking the Concept of ‘Medieval Europe,'” will explore how the idea of medieval Europe has been enshrined in the popular imagination as a world of kings and queens, castles and knights, while in the scholarly imagination, it is England and France writ large across a blank slate of a continent. The talk will challenge these constructions of medieval Europe and consider why we need to think differently about this still-important region.
Cunningham hopes the lecture series serves to uphold and build upon Howe's legacy.
“John's research focus in medieval and early modern European history always made him a popular teacher for our undergraduate and graduate students alike,” Cunningham says. “Beyond that, John was instrumental in the founding of our highly regarded Medieval & Renaissance Studies Center, so I think this lecture series is not simply a wonderful tribute – it's also a great way to remind our community of the exciting work being done in this field across the world, as well as on our own campus.”
Swingen hopes it serves as a reminder of the man it's named after.
“In the short term, I certainly hope people come out and learn something from the topics at hand themselves,” she notes. “But I also want people to remember the incredible contribution John has made to the department and to the university and to the scholarly field.”
For his part, Howe simply hopes this helps to extend the lifespan of the field he's worked so hard to establish.
“Well, actually, this is not very ambitious, but I hope it helps keep pre-modern studies alive,” he says. “As I say, this is a new field. Most historians do not do this, and so they don't necessarily understand it. It's always a fight to explain why what you're doing is valuable and that you can contribute. The fact that there'll be a regular lecture in medieval and early modern history will give this kind of deep history a higher profile. So, I'm very pleased with that.”
The lecture series is currently being funded through the history department, but organizers hope to raise enough money to create a permanent endowment. Click here to contribute to the fund.