Las Vegas, N.M. – A New Mexican Highlands history professor will deliver the keynote address at an international medieval history conference in Prague that focuses on literacy during the later Middle Ages.
Steven Williams, an internationally known scholar of medieval intellectual history, will speak at Charles University’s Centre for Medieval Studies at the conference, “Books of Knowledge and Their Reception,” Oct. 18–20.
In 2003, Williams’ book, The Secret of Secrets: The Scholarly Career of a Pseudo-Aristotelian Text in the Latin Middle Ages, was published. It is now recognized as the standard on the topic.
“The Secret of Secrets is not a genuine work of Aristotle’s, but in the Middle Ages many thought it was,” Williams said. “Readers come away from my book with a better understanding of the life and death of a medieval best-seller.”
The Secret of Secrets was purported to be a letter of advice written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle to his student Alexander the Great. It covers a wide range of topics including ethics, statecraft, astrology, alchemy, medicine and magic.
“The Secret of Secrets didn’t appear like Athena out of the head of Zeus. Its creation is more like what happens in the formation of a hailstone – in layers,” Williams said. “It reached its full form by circa 1000 C.E. in the Arabic-speaking East. My book focuses on its scholarly reception during the Latin Middle Ages.”
Williams said reading expanded during the Middle Ages.
“Before that, reading had been confined primarily to the clergy. In this time period, more lay people began reading due to socioeconomic and cultural changes in society and greater access to books,” Williams said.
Williams, who is the only American presenting at the Prague conference, said his keynote agenda is twofold.
“First, I’ll wrestle with the concept of books of knowledge, which is a vague but useful phrase. Second, I’ll give an overview of the publishing history of the Secret of Secrets in the Middle Ages,” Williams said.
Founded in 1348, Charles University is the largest university in the Czech Republic and was the first university in Central Europe.
“One of my interests is early university history. I’ve presented papers at a number of European locations but never here. It’s thrilling to be visiting Charles University because it’s one of the oldest universities in the world,” Williams said.
Williams said his fascination with medieval history began when he was an undergraduate visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
“I heard Gregorian chants in the giant entry hall and saw 15th-century European paintings by masters such as Jan van Eyck. I was blown away by the beauty of the art. The cliché is that the Middle Ages from 500 to 1500 are dark and backward, but this visit put a contradiction right in front of my face. I became intrigued and challenged by it,” Williams said.
Williams, who chairs the History and Political Science Department at Highlands, has taught at the university since 1994. He earned his Ph.D. in medieval history from Northwestern University.
At Highlands, Williams teaches a number of courses on European history along with research methods.
“When I return from this conference and stand in front of my students, I’ll be able to share the excitement of my experience with them as well as the excitement of doing research,” Williams said.
Williams is widely published in scholarly journals such as Speculum and Micrologus. He also writes reviews for journals such as Renaissance Quarterly, among others.
Williams’ doctoral dissertation focused on the Secret of Secrets and he studied in Paris through a co-sponsored fellowship from the Newberry Library in Chicago and the French government.
“It was an incredible opportunity to be paid to study in Paris and to be attached with École Nationale des Chartes, one of the most prestigious schools in France,” Williams said.