Get to Know: Prof. Matus


Professor Matus is a historian of medieval Europe whose teaching interests include the history of science, religion, animals, and weird stuff. He is currently working on two projects. One is a history of snakes, which is titled Snakes: A Hiss-story until someone makes him change it. The other is a study comparing medieval scientific practices like animal dissection and alchemical experimentation to play. Professor Matus’s favorite places to go for a hike near Boston include the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, World’s End, and Great Meadows.

What do you study and what do you teach? How did you come to study and teach those topics?

I am a historian of the European Middle Ages, but I don’t do kings, queens, wars, or castles. Instead I teach about animals, magic and science, heretics, and pretty much anything that might seem odd. It is important to me that we get behind the weird. It is easy to empathize or understand what is familiar, but I want students (and myself) to exercise empathy, intuition, and try to make sense of what seems alien about the past. 

Book cover

If you could take your students on a field trip, where would you go and what would you do?

I would go to Orvieto in Italy. It’s perched on a hill in Umbria, with medieval walls, streets, and cathedral intact. It’s small enough that just walking around gives you a sense of what “space” would have felt like to medieval city-dwellers. We would spend some time looking at the public art in the cathedral and, of course, we would eat. 

What do you do when you aren’t being a professor?

I am a dad to two boys, whose extracurricular activities have become my own. My kids are sports nuts, so I coach baseball and basketball. Before kids started running our lives, my wife and I used to do a lot of hiking. The boys are warming (slowly) to it.

What is the last good book you read or movie/TV show you watched?

For books, since it is summer I actually read some fiction. I just reread China Mieville’s The City & the City, a book that has haunted me for a while.

I also just finished the latest season of Stranger Things, which I really enjoyed. I was a super nerd in the 1980s just like the kids in the show. 

Does that mean you played Dungeons & Dragons?

<<sigh>> Yes.

So you really were a nerd?

I still am. 

Why should someone take your classes?

My classes are fun. How can you not have fun reading and talking about medieval superheroes, carnivorous land octopi that attack from trees, and medicines made from the nether parts of hyenas? Yet even weirder than all that is that you may leave my classes feeling like you have learned something valuable.