Dr. Jeremy Thompson

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Dr. Jeremy Thompson is an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair for Ancient Languages, Latin Philology of the Middle Ages and Modern Times at FAU. (Image: Wen-Jun Huang)

Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair for Ancient Languages, Latin Philology of the Middle Ages and Modern Times

Dr. Jeremy Thompson obtained a BA summa cum laude in Classics at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, in 2004 and a MA in Classics at the State University of New Jersey, USA, in 2008. In December 2014, he completed his PhD at the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled “The Role of Lupus of Ferrières in the Ninth-Century Predestination Controversy”. Since obtaining his PhD, Dr. Thompson has also taught abroad, namely at the Fu-Jen Catholic University in Taiwan from 2015 to 2017. In addition to his teaching and researching activities, he, for example, also acted as co-organizer of the international colloquium “La controverse carolingienne sur la prédestination. Histoire, textes, manuscrits” at Sorbonne, Paris, France in 2013.

Since April 2018, Dr. Thompson furthers his research at the FAU Chair for Ancient Languages, Latin Philology of the Middle Ages and Modern Times as an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow. His research area includes the intellectual and cultural history in the Latin Middle Ages, from 800 to 1200. However, this is not Dr. Thompson´s first stay in Germany. In the frame of several research fellowships, he spent some time at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel.

It is a great privilege to work at FAU.

What exactly sparked your interest in your field of research?

The genesis of my current research lies back in my undergraduate days. In my last year of college, while taking a course on medieval art history, I encountered a perplexing image depicted in a manuscript of the eleventh century. The image showed the Crucifixion of Christ and, along with it, elaborate musical diagrams and mathematical terminology. The relationship between the religious theme and the scientific representation was not clear. Life being what it is, I went on and did other things – took a Master’s in Classics, wrote a dissertation on another subject – but all things seem to be connected if we wait long enough, and in my application to the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, I proposed to return to these unanswered questions from fifteen years back.

If you compare your home university to FAU: what are, from your point of view, the most evident differences?

It is a great privilege to work at FAU. In my home country, Medieval Latin is often hardly recognized as a field of research in its own right, while, here, there is a department dedicated to it. With the departmental libraries – again a salient difference from universities in my native country – I have an enormous number of fundamental books at my immediate disposal. Lectures by a variety of scholars introduce me to interesting topics with which I am unfamiliar. I am especially looking forward to a conference that will take place from the 5th to the 7th of December about libraries in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Scholars and medievalists discuss material culture in my home country, but this kind of theme truly shows off the advantages of a scholarship in Germany. It is exciting to engage with a new community of scholars whose methods and theoretical stance are fresh and different.

Could you give us a short summary of the project your research group is working on? What is your main task within this project?

I study the intersection of mathematical and musical knowledge with theological meaning and religious symbolism over the period 850–1200. For instance, why should Christ be called the “first square,” as one thinker claimed in the twelfth century. Or is he rather a cube, as another text wants us to think? The project has many discrete parts and several overall aims. I usually work with medieval manuscripts, and often with anonymous, hard-to-read, never-published comments that appear in margins and between lines. I have studied, for instance, the ways in which early medieval individuals coded information in numbers through the letters of the Greek alphabet. According to one medieval commentator who wrote in the margins of a standard scientific work, Greek people learned numbers more easily than people who worked in Latin with Roman numerals. Why should that be the case?

My next task will be a history of the role of the digit in medieval numerical symbolism. The most common way in which a medieval thinker explained the meaning of a number was to break it down into its addends or factors. So the number 40 might be meaningful because its factors – 10 and 4 – reflect the number of commandments and the number of evangelists. But every now and then one finds a number that is broken down into its digits – for example, the number 1218 might be considered a series of digits 1, 2, 1, and 8. I would like to investigate the reason for this, and to open up broader problems of numerical literacy in the Middle Ages.

What are the most important results of your research at FAU to date?

At the moment, I am finishing a study of two manuscripts that date to the late ninth century and contain the oldest continuous commentary on a standard mathematical treatise of the Middle Ages, On Arithmetic by the late Roman writer Boethius. One of the manuscripts has been entirely overlooked or misidentified. Together they give an impression of what mathematical education might have looked like in France and Germany in the centuries after the year 850. We see there reflection on the categories of Aristotle, on the vision of God, on the image of God in the human soul, on musical harmonies, besides mathematical proportions.

It is exciting to engage with a new community of scholars whose methods and theoretical stance are fresh and different.

How does your research benefit or affect society?

One area of the project, which I am working out now, seeks to describe the structure of medieval disciplines and interdisciplinarity in the study of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, the four advanced sciences comprised by the so-called quadrivium, or “fourfold path” of knowledge. Particularly I am interested in questions of who had access to scientific knowledge, where it came from (revelation? scientific research?), how it was used, and how the different branches of learning were connected to one another. Indeed, did anyone have access to it except for God? The real heart of the project lies in the use of such knowledge to undergird theories about the cosmos and about the place of humanity in it. These are timelessly relevant. As with many historical disciplines, such research urges us against assuming that a given construction of knowledge – as it appears here and now – is a definitive one, and furthermore against limiting the manifold, unexpected implications and consequences of knowledge for a culture. Human beings have forged remarkably creative connections between disparate areas of knowledge, and these are what I would like to highlight. I would like to show how such connections could constitute and wield a veritable cultural force. Finally, such research teaches us to be humble, because we can better grasp the advantage of our position as inheritors of the gradual accrual of knowledge over thousands of years.

What were your first (and subsequent) impressions of the Erlangen-Nuremberg region?

This is my first extended stay in Bavaria or Franconia. A vendor at the daily market told me I should not be disappointed if I do not understand all the German: the local dialect is very difficult, she tells me. I had to ask her to repeat herself.

Do you already have a particular highlight, an experience or a moment during your stay so far, that you will remember?

To be quite honest, my most memorable experience lies outside of my research. My first child, a daughter, was born here about a month ago, and I will remember and treasure that. It is nice that this could take place in a country whose policies actively support expecting parents. Since I study numbers, I am, moreover, interested in learning from my daughter about the acquisition of numerical literacy. There are many interesting studies that I want to test on her!

What are your favourite places at FAU and in Erlangen or Nuremberg?

I was at once impressed by Erlangen as a university town. There are many shops to be found on the side streets. One merely has to wander around to discover them. I like walking along the Schwabach and through the botanical gardens and the aroma garden. For good coffee in the Italian style I like to go to Stefanias Café at Schiffstr. 12. There are many towns of historical interest in the area, and they make easy and pleasant day trips.

Thank you for the interview, Dr. Thompson.