Katherine H. Tachau

Professor Emerita

Katherine Tachau was a member of the History Department from 1985 until her retirement in 2019. Her training as a Medievalist began at Oberlin College (B.A. in Spanish and Medieval Studies in 1972) and continued at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was a researcher at the Institute for Medieval Greek and Latin Philology at Copenhagen University in Denmark from 1979-81 and subsequently held faculty positions at Montana State University and Pomona College before coming to the department. At Iowa, she became active in both the University’s Center for the Book and the Medieval Studies Program.

Katherine's research, like her teaching, is deeply interdisciplinary, bringing together the histories of medieval science, philosophy, and religious thought (with special emphasis on their development at the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century medieval universities) with the history of medieval art. Her early publications contributed principally to the history of the science of optics and to the history of late medieval philosophy at the universities of Oxford and Paris. Authors whose work she has treated in print include (among others) the Franciscans Roger Bacon (d. 1294?), William of Ockham (d. 1348), Adam Wodeham (d. 1358), and Peter Auriol (d. 1322); the Dominican, Robert Holcot (d. 1349), and the Parisian scholar, Nicholas of Autrecourt (d. 1369).

Her first book, Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham: Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundations of Semantics, 1250-1345 (1988), was awarded the Medieval Academy of America’s John Nicholas Brown Prize (1992). Other representative publications include “Logic’s God and the Natural Order in Late Medieval Oxford: the Teaching of Robert Holcot,” Annals of Science 53 (1996), 235-267, and “What Senses and Intellect Do: Argument and Judgment in Late Medieval Theories of Knowledge,” in K. Jacobi, ed., Argumentationstheorie: Scholastische Forschungen zu den logischen und semantischen Regeln korrekten Folgerns (Leiden: 1993). In addition, since 1990, she has been a co-director of the critical edition of the Opera theologica of Peter Auriol (d. 1322). More recently, her research has turned toward the intellectual world of the University of Paris in its formative decades, especially as expressed in four manuscripts called Bibles moralisées that count among the most significant artistic monuments produced at Paris under the patronage of the Capetian royal family. From this project, she has published “God’s Compass and Vana Curiositas: Scientific Study in the Old French Bible moralisée,” Art Bulletin, 80 (March, 1998), 7-33 and “What has Gothic to Do with Scholasticism,” in Colum Hourihane, ed. Gothic Art and Thought in the Later Medieval Period: Essays in Honor of Wilibald Sauerländer (University Park, PA: 2011), pp. 14-3.

Currently, she is writing a monograph, Bible Lessons for Kings: Scholars and Friars in Thirteenth-Century Paris and the Creation of the Bibles Moralisées.

Awards and service

  • Appointment to National Council on the Humanities (Aug. 2013-Jan. 2018)
  • Fulbright Specialist Grant, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, Uruguay (May-June 2011)
  • Michael Brody Award for Faculty Service, 2010.
  • Regents Award for Faculty Excellence, University of Iowa (2009)
  • Professeure Invitée, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris (May-June 2009)
  • U.I. Funded Retirement and Insurance Charter Committee (Spring 2008-present)
  • Faculty Senate President (2004-05)
  • Faculty Senate Vice-President/President Elect, University of Iowa (2003-2004)
  • Faculty Senate Secretary (April 2009-2010)
  • Faculty Senate (1995-1999; 2001-06; 2008-10)
  • Faculty Council (1996-97; 1998-99; 2002- 06; 2008-10)
  • Visitor, Institute for Advanced Study (January-August 2007)
  • Stanford Humanities Center Fellowship (May-July 2000)
  • Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2000-2001)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (August 1999-April 2000)
  • National Humanities Center Fellowship (1993-1994)
  • Medieval Academy of America: the John Nicholas Brown Prize - first book on a medieval topic (1992)
  • Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship, Princeton (Fall 1991; Visitor, Spring-Summer 1992)
  • University of Iowa Faculty Scholarship (1989-1992)
  • The Leopold Schepp Foundation Fellowship, for research at the Villa I Tatti, Florence, Italy (1984-1985)
  • The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies Fellowship, Villa I Tatti, Florence, Italy (1984-1985)
  • Medieval Academy of America: the Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize - first article on a medieval topic (1984)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (Summer Stipend, 1984; June 1999 - February 2000)
  • George C. Marshall Memorial Fund Fellowship, Institute for Medieval Greek and Latin Philology, Denmark (1979-1980; renewed 1980-1981)



  • Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham: Optics, Epistemology, and the Foundations of Semantics, 1250-1345


Commentary and Popular Writing

Research areas
  • Medieval Intellectual History
  • History of Science and Philosophy
  • Medieval Universities
  • Medieval Latin Paleography and Codicology
  • History of Medieval Manuscript Art and Illumination