Multi-million-dollar medievalists: interdisciplinary project digs into climate and culture of late Middle Ages

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

By Wendy Philpott

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, announced new funding for social sciences and humanities research last week, including a significant $2,500,000 Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for a project led by Steven Bednarski, professor of medieval history based at St Jerome’s University.

The work builds on a long-term research partnership Bednarski has led between Waterloo and Queen’s University, including the Bader International Study Centre (BISC) at Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex.

A seven-year interdisciplinary project, “Environments of Change: Digitizing Nature, History, and Human Experience in Late Medieval Sussex” will investigate how emerging digital technologies can help to reveal the historical relationship between climate and culture in the late Middle Ages, offering insights on contemporary climate-culture interactions.

The project will establish the first digital humanities lab for the study of historical climate and culture. The objective is to see more clearly how humans impact the natural world and vice versa: the Medieval Digital Research in Arts and Graphical Environmental Networks Laboratory, or DRAGEN Lab. Along with a newly-built Science Lab at the BISC, these spaces provide unique training grounds to form the next generation of digitally-minded environmental humanists.

“To represent the climate-culture symbiosis objectively,” explains Bednarski, “we focus on another time and place of immense environmental and cultural change: southern England, 1000-1550—which coincides with the gradual end of the Medieval Climate Optimum and the onset of the Little Ice Age.”

Steven Bednarski holding medieval book
"This project is a unique opportunity for scholars from diverse disciplines to work with the support of major Canadian and international research institutes, industry partners, public- and not-for-profit agencies, and government to produce transdisciplinary digital research into the complex relationship between humans and nature.” - Principle Investigator, Steven Bednarski

Along with St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo’s faculties of Arts (including the Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business), Science, and Environment, the Games Institute, the Office of Research, and the Office of the Provost all provide essential support to the project.

Among 30 experts involved in the project, the core Waterloo research team members include professors Joan Coutu (Fine Arts), John Johnston (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Ian Milligan (History), Neil Randall (English), Ann Marie Rasmussen (Germanic and Slavic Studies), Derek Robinson (Geography and Environmental Management), Martin Ross (Earth and Environmental Sciences), David Rudolph (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Sherry Schiff (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Maria Strack (Geography and Environmental Management), Jane Tingley (Fine Arts), Andrew Trant (School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability), and Johanna Wandel (Geography and Environmental Management), and the project’s Digital Librarian, Zack MacDonald (St. Jerome’s University Library).

“Together, we will produce tools to digitize sound, image, word, and provide an immersive experience to wide audiences, from school children to policy makers to scholars,” says Bednarski. “Our novel digital media will include: an educational video game based on our archaeological and archival investigations; interactive digital maps to represent how climate and culture co-evolved; and exciting AR/VR 3D models that allow users to experience distant historical sites in their reconstructed natural contexts, online and through mobile tourism apps.”

Waterloo is pleased support the Environments of Change project and congratulates and acknowledges the following partners:

  • St. Jerome’s University
  • Queen’s University
  • Bader International Study Centre
  • Harvard University Libraries
  • The Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory
  • University of Victoria
  • UbiSoft Canada
  • Nelson Publishing
  • Beacon Labs, Halifax
  • Waterloo Region District School Board
  • Kitchener-Waterloo Bilingual School
  • Voice Integrative School
  • Battle Abbey School, East Sussex
  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
  • East Sussex County Council
  • English Heritage