Alex Novikoff joined the Department of History at Kenyon in 2017 after a decade of teaching at liberal arts colleges and research universities in Philadelphia, Memphis, New York City and Switzerland. A specialist in the intellectual and cultural history of medieval Europe, his scholarship focuses on the liberal arts in medieval education and society, and more specifically on the art of debate as it was practiced within and beyond the medieval university. His research also touches on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, the medieval Mediterranean and modern medievalism.
Professor Novikoff's classes at Kenyon include the two-semester survey of Medieval Europe, a history of the crusades, and 400-level seminars on medieval Spain and the twelfth-century Renaissance. He also leads a summer class on the history of Italy from the fall of Rome to the rise of the Renaissance in partnership with Franklin University Switzerland and the office of overseas study.
As an instructor, Novikoff stresses the double challenge of understanding the medieval world through its own voice(s) but also as a relevant and in some cases necessary background to various features (laudable and reprehensible) of the modern world. After all, many of our modern rituals and institutions (not least the liberal arts college, complete with cap and gowns, neo-Gothic architecture, and Latin mottos) are rooted in the rich legacy of medieval traditions. But so are some of the recurrent ideologies that seek to stoke the flames of religious hatred, stifle intellectual curiosity, and promote a cultural purity that never existed in the first place. One of the challenges facing medievalists is to recognize that some of the best and worst elements of contemporary life look to the Middle Ages for inspiration.
Alex Novikoff is a native of Greenwich Village, New York City. He is a dual citizen of the United States and France, a classically trained violinist (and member of the Central Ohio Symphony), an elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Great Britain and a recent recipient of the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. In spring 2019 he was a visiting scholar at the Israel Institute of Advanced Study. He is the author/editor/translator of three books and about a dozen articles and book chapters. He serves as the faculty advisor to the Kenyon Tennis Club and the Kenyon Quizbowl Club.
Areas of Expertise
Medieval history, intellectual and cultural history, interfaith relations, medievalism, historiography.
2007 — Doctor of Philosophy from University of Pennsylvania
2003 — Master of Philosophy from University of Cambridge
2000 — Bachelor of Arts from New York University
Courses Recently Taught
This team-taught seminar explores the 20th century in global comparative perspective, through the reading, contextualization, and analysis of mainly primary source texts and documents. In any given year the seminar will focus on one of two themes: the post-war world (ca.1945-1989), or the inter-war world (1919-1939). It takes up themes of broad political, economic and social transformations; scientific and technological innovations; and the cultural shifts that occurred throughout these decades preceding and following the Second World War. The seminar sections will meet jointly once a week for lectures or films, and separately once a week for discussion of primary-source readings. In addition to the rich historical material that the course addresses, students will begin to learn the basic skills of the historian: asking questions, finding and analyzing relevant documents or primary sources, and identifying different kinds of interpretations of those sources. This counts toward the modern requirement for the major. Open only to first-year students.
This course surveys the history of the early Middle Ages. Relying mainly on primary sources, it traces the broad contours of 800 years of European and Mediterranean history. The course covers the gradual merging of Roman and Germanic cultures, the persistence of Roman ideas during the Middle Ages, the slow Christianization of Europe, monasticism, the rise of Islam, and Norse society. Readings include Augustine's "Confessions," a scandalous account of the reign of the Emperor Justinian, the "Rule of St. Benedict," a translation of the Qur'an and Bede's "Ecclesiastical History." This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major and minor. Offered every year.
This course surveys the history of the later Middle Ages in Europe and the Mediterranean. Relying mainly on primary sources, the course covers the renaissance of the 12th century, mendicant and monastic spiritualities, scholasticism, the rise of universities and the devastation of the Black Death. Readings include Christian, Jewish and Muslim accounts of several crusades; a saga about a hard-drinking, poetry-loving Norseman; and letters written by two ill-fated 12th-century lovers. This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major and minor. Offered every year.
Through lectures and discussions, this course will introduce the student to early modern Europe, with special attention to Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia. It will treat such topics as the Reformation, the emergence of the French challenge to the European equilibrium, Britain's eccentric constitutional course, the pattern of European contacts with the non-European world, the character of daily life in premodern Europe, the Enlightenment, the appearance of Russia on the European scene, and the origins of German dualism, as well as the impact of the French Revolution on Europe. This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major and minor. No prerequisite. Offered every year.
In the late 11th century, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade by calling on European knights to reconquer the city of Jerusalem. The objectives of the first crusaders may have been fairly circumscribed, but for the next four centuries the crusading movement had complex and varied consequences for the inhabitants of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In this course, we will examine: (1) the confluence of religious, political and economic motivations that inspired crusaders (2) the extension of the notion of crusade to Islamic Spain and parts of northern Europe and (3) the manifold interreligious and cross-cultural exchanges (peaceful and violent) that resulted from the crusades. This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major and minor. Offered every other year.
In 1325, 21-year-old Ibn Battuta left Tangiers for a pilgrimage to Mecca. This pilgrimage became 28 years of ceaseless travel through sub-Saharan Africa, China and India. A careful observer, Battuta left a valuable record of his travels, his disappointments, his enthusiasms and his perplexity at the things he witnessed. This course looks at medieval people who, like Ibn Battuta, undertook ambitious journeys and recorded their experiences. It asks about the motivations (religious, military, economic, scholarly) for such costly and dangerous travel and pays particular attention to how medieval travelers perceived the cultures they encountered. Understanding their experiences is not a simple task, since their reports, like those of all travelers, are admixtures of astute observation, fallible memory and fantastic embellishment. In addition to texts on Ibn Battuta's travels, we will read the letters of spice merchants in India; the observations of a cultivated 12th-century Jew as he traveled from Spain throughout the Mediterranean; Marco Polo's descriptions of the courts of China, India and Japan; and the report of a 10th-century ambassador to Constantinople, where he met the Byzantine emperor: "a monstrosity of a man, a dwarf, fatheaded and with tiny mole's eyes." This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major and minor. Offered every three or four years.
This course focuses on the diverse ways that historians have understood a period of dramatic political, social and cultural change: the 12th century. We begin by looking at how historians have described the 12th century in the broader context of European history. In the early 20th century, Charles Homer Haskins famously proposed that we should see the 12th century as a renaissance. Over the course of several weeks, we examine different varieties of evidence: law codes, theological tracts, chronicles, letters and poems. We turn from these various types of evidence to explore a set of broadly synthetic questions about the social, political, cultural and economic history of the period. In other words, we move from granular analysis of particular pieces of evidence to thinking about models for understanding change and continuity. In the final weeks of the semester, students will share the fruits of individual research projects with the seminar. This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major. Offered every other year.
This course explores the history of the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. The history of medieval Spain differed dramatically from the rest of Europe. For over 700 years, the peninsula was divided between Muslim and Christian rule. During different periods, many Christians lived under Islamic rule, and many Muslims under Christian rule. Most major cities also had long-established Jewish communities. As a result of multiple superimposed migrations and invasions, Spain was the most ethnically and religiously diverse part of Europe. The interactions among these different groups ranged from fruitful cooperation and tolerance on the one hand, to virulent persecution, on the other. This course explores the rich but volatile relations between different ethnic and religious groups while placing Spain's history in the context of its relations with other regions. To understand the dynamic and sometimes violent societies of medieval Spain, one must appreciate the shifting patterns of economic, political and cultural ties that linked the peninsula to Europe, North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Americas. This counts toward the premodern requirement for the major and minor. Offered every other year.
The goal of this course is to give each history major the experience of a sustained, independent research project, including formulating a historical question, considering methods, devising a research strategy, locating and critically evaluating primary and secondary sources, placing evidence in context, shaping an interpretation and presenting documented results. Research topics will be selected by students in consultation with the instructor. Classes will involve student presentations on various stages of their work and mutual critiques, as well as discussions of issues of common interest, such as methods and bibliography. Open only to senior history majors. This counts toward the senior research seminar requirement for the major. Prerequisite: HIST 387. Offered every fall.
Individual study is available to students who want to pursue a course of reading or complete a focused research project on a topic not regularly offered in the curriculum. This option is restricted to history majors and cannot normally be used to fulfill distribution requirements within the major. To qualify, a student must prepare a proposal in consultation with a member of the history faculty who has suitable expertise and is willing to work with the student over the course of a semester. The two- to three-page proposal should include a statement of the questions to be explored, a preliminary bibliography, a schedule of assignments, a schedule of meetings with the supervising faculty member and a description of grading criteria. The student also should briefly describe prior coursework that particularly qualifies him or her to pursue the project independently. The department chair must approve the proposal. The student should meet regularly with the instructor for at least the equivalent of one hour per week. At a minimum, the amount of work submitted for a grade should approximate that required, on average, in 300- or 400-level history courses. Individual projects will vary, but students should plan to read 200 pages or more a week and to write at least 30 pages over the course of the semester. Students are urged to begin discussion of their proposals with the supervising faculty member and the department chair the semester before they hope to undertake the project. Because students must enroll for individual studies by the end of the seventh class day of each semester, they should begin discussion of the proposed individual study preferably the semester before, so that there is time to devise the proposal and seek departmental approval before the established deadline. Proposals must be submitted by the third day of classes to department chair.