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Video: Medieval studies major illustrates the story of Charlemagne's elephant

Author: Todd Boruff


When honors medieval studies major Karen Neis ’16 took a class on Charlemagne, the unusual story of the emperor’s prized elephant resonated with her. She recalled that story when it came time to choose a senior thesis, ultimately leading her to produce an illustrated children’s book, Abul Abbas, The Elephant.

The book recounts the journey of the elephant that caliph Harun al-Rashid gave as a gift to Charlemagne around the year 800. In the story, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim all work together to transport the elephant 3,000 miles from Baghdad to Aachen.

"I think it's important to show children narratives from our past of religious cooperation so that they can make a better future, keeping true to their own faiths, but also respecting other people,” Neis said.

Drawing on the internationally renowned resources of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute, Neis found models for her illustrations among manuscripts, illuminations, and art objects from Charlemagne’s time. Building on the skills she learned as a studio art minor, she hopes this project will be a springboard for her career after graduation.

“I'd like to become a children's illustrator and learn more about how to incorporate not only medieval styles, but also my own imagination, into making more projects like this,” she said.

For her outstanding project, the Medieval Institute awarded Neis its annual Robert M. Conway Prize (formerly the Michel Prize), a cash award that goes to the year’s best undergraduate essay on a medieval topic written at any point in the student’s academic career.