Carol Symes studies the mediation of knowledge in, and about, the medieval world: the history of premodern media as well as the processes by which products and perceptions of the medieval past are transmitted to future generations. She has published widely on the medieval reception and preservation of ancient dramatic texts; the role of medievalism in modern cultural trends, intellectual projects, and nationalist historiographies; and, most importantly, on the material, embodied, performative, and negotiated processes of writing across an array of medieval genres. She is also a public-facing theatre scholar and practitioner who has produced and performed in numerous actor-friendly verse translations of medieval plays.
Carol received the Ph.D in History from Harvard and became a member of Actors’ Equity in the same year. She also holds a B.A. in Humanities from Yale and an M.Litt in History from Oxford, and received her professional training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her first book, A Common Stage: Theater and Public Life in Medieval Arras (Cornell, 2007), has been awarded the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize of the American Historical Association and the John Nicholas Brown Prize of the Medieval Academy of America, among other honors. Since its publication, it has catalyzed the field of premodern media studies and contributed to a new understanding of performance practices and their chancy relationship to writing.
In 2012, Carol founded The Medieval Globe, the first academic journal to promote and model methods for studying the interconnectivity of the medieval world. She is also the editor, with Caroline Goodson and Anne Lester, of Cities, Texts and Social Networks, 400-1500 (2010); and co-author, with Joshua Cole, of W.W. Norton's bestselling Western Civilizations textbook. Her series of lectures on "The Medieval Legacy" was released in 2022 by The Great Courses / Wondrium. In 2019, she was honored with the Medieval Academy of America's Kindrick-CARA Award for service to the field of Medieval Studies. In 2022, she was named a University Scholar in recognition of her research, teaching, and service. In 2023, she was awarded the title of Dean's Professorial Scholar.
In 2024, Carol will welcome the publication of A Cultural History of Media in the Middle Ages, edited for the Bloomsbury Cultural Histories Series. She is also working to complete the manuscript of a long-awaited book, Mediated Texts and Their Makers: Documentary Initiatives in Western Europe, 1000-1225, a radical reconstruction of medieval textual practices which takes account of the many historical actors and evolving recording technologies that created such canonical sources as Domesday Book and the earliest histories of the First Crusade. It analyzes the contingent conditions and public uses of writing, the give-and-take among multiple genres of documentation and multiple literacies, and the pervasive influence of performance on the making and meanings of medieval texts. Fundamentally, this work reveals that many non-elites (some not technically literate) were involved in negotiating, drafting, disseminating, and contesting the sources on which we rely for our knowledge of the medieval past. As a result, it calls into question the assumed evidentiary value of many kinds of writing, and the ways that medieval texts have been interpreted by modern historians for centuries.
An ongoing project, Modern War and the Medieval Past, explores the ways that ideas, monuments, and landscapes associated with the Middle Ages were sentimentalized, targeted, destroyed, and revived before, during, and after the Great War. Another, Shakespeare in Chains, explores how the experience of enclosure, vagabondage, criminalization, and incarceration shaped the actors, audiences, and plays of Tudor-Stuart England. It grows, in part, out of the lessons she learned while teaching and performing several of these plays at the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-maximum security state prison for men. She subsequently founded the Education Justice Project's Theatre Initiative and directed a full-length production of The Tempest in April of 2013. At the same time, this research extends her own intensive work on the complex historical circumstances in which late medieval and early modern plays were produced and preserved, and thereby contributes to ongoing debates over the authorship of the scripts attributed to William Shakespeare -- which have themselves been imprisoned within anachronistic and teleological frameworks that do not account for the practical realities of theatrical production and inscription during a transitional era of increasing government control and censorship. (Carol is a member of The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition and a "notable signatory" to the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare).
As the founding executive editor of The Medieval Globe, Carol has played a leading role in promoting global approaches to medieval studies. This biannual journal explores the modes of communication, materials of exchange, and myriad interconnections among regions, communities, and individuals in an era central to human history. It encourages scholarship in three related areas of study: the direct and indirect means through which peoples, ideas, and things came into contact with one another; the deep roots of allegedly modern global phenomena; and the ways in which perceptions of “the Middle Ages” and “the medieval” have been (and continue to be) constructed, shaped, and deployed around the world. TMG's inaugural double issue was published in 2014: Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, edited by Monica H. Green. Like all thematic issues, it is also available in The Medieval Globe Books series. A recent issue, also available in Open Access format, presents New Evidence for the Dating and Impact of the Black Death in Asia (2022), making a compelling case that plague was already ravaging China in the 1220s -- a century before its advent in the Mediterranean world.
At Illinois, Carol has served as both Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in History. She holds joint appointments in Theatre, Classics, and Medieval Studies, and is affiliated with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Global Studies, the European Union Center, and the Program for Jewish Culture and Society. She is the recipient of the Queen Teaching Prize for Instruction in History and the Dean's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She was named a Helen Corley Petit Scholar for 2008-09 and, from 2011-2017, was the Lynn M. Martin Professorial Scholar. To date, her work has also been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois, the Illinois Humanities Research Institute, and the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York.
As an advisor in the Office of Research & Project Development, Carol has provided grant-writing and research design support to scores of faculty colleagues, as well as convening workshops and mentoring tenure-track assistant professors and postdoctoral fellows. These efforts have helped to secure dozens of competitive grants from the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, the ACLS, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other prestigious awards.
Carol's stageworthy translations of several early medieval plays, including the Anglo-Norman Ordo representacionis Ade (Jeu d'Adam), the Latin comedy Babio, and the monumental Ludus de Antichristo, have all been performed in collaboration with her former student and long-time collaborator, Dr. Kyle A. Thomas (PhD Theatre, 2018). Notably, her verse translation of The Play of Adam had its world premiere at The Cloisters (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York on 17-18 December 2016. It was restaged and filmed at Illinois in 2017, where a short documentary about the production's creative process was also filmed. Her translation of the Ludus de Antichristo (Play about the Antichrist), composed at the influential Bavarian abbey of Tegernsee around 1160, has been published by DeGruyter and is accompanied by Kyle's full historical commentary, dramaturgical analysis, and Latin edition. (Listen to our podcast interview on the New Books Network.)
PH.D SUPERVISION - CURRENT
Chloe Parrella (B.A. Gettysburg College): "The Assembled Meanings of Soil in Early Medieval England"
CURRENT PH.D DISSERTATION COMMITTEES
Heather Duncan (B.A. Missouri State University, M.A. Southeastern Indiana University): "A Kingdom Forgotten: Recovering Roman Gepidia"
Rhiannon Hein (B.A. University of Alabama, M.A. University of Illinois): “A Provincial Cosmos: German Towns, Gowns, and the Making of Modernity, 1775-1848”
Eva Kuras (Comparative and World Literatures -- B.A. Cornell University, M.A. University of Illinois): “The Circulating Eurasian Romance: Varqeh o Golshah and Floire et Blancheflor”
Lingyan Liu (B.A. Nanchang University, M.A. Beijing Normal University): "A Nation of Noise: The Sounds of China and the Construction of Race and Identity, 1850s-1930s"
RECENT PH.D SUPERVISION
Jacob Bell - Assistant Professor of History, Texas Tech University (Ph.D 2023): “Ambáttar: Unfreedom, Mobility, and Women’s Reproductive Labor in the North Atlantic World, 750-1250”
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Additional Campus Affiliations
Professor, Program in Medieval Studies
Professor, Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory
Professor, European Union Center
Symes, C. L., & Cole, J. (2023). Western Civilizations. (21 ed.) W. W. Norton & Company.
Thomas, K. A., & Symes, C. (2023). The Play about the Antichrist (Ludus de Antichristo): A Dramaturgical Analysis, Historical Commentary, and Latin Edition with a New English Verse Translation. (Early Drama, Art, and Music). De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781501513572
Symes, C. L. (2022). Editor's Preface: New Evidence for the Dating and Impact of the Black Death in Asia. The Medieval Globe, 8(1), 1-2. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/867631
Symes, C. L. (Ed.) (2022). New Evidence for the Dating and Impact of the Black Death in Asia. The Medieval Globe, 8(1). https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/48929
Symes, C. L. (Actor). (2022). The Medieval Legacy - The Great Courses. Exhibition https://www.wondrium.com/the-medieval-legacy