Olson, Katharine

Associate Professor of History, San Jose State University

Honorary Research Fellow, Bangor University (U.K.)


Department of History, San Jose State University

1 Washington Square

San Jose, CA 95192-0117

Email: katharine.olson@sjsu.edu 


A.B., History, The University of Chicago (with Special Honors)

M.A., Celtic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

Ph.D., History and Celtic Studies (joint degree), Harvard University


Prof. Kate Olson is a native of Northern California, and grew up in the Bay Area. She researches the religious, cultural, social, intellectual, and political history of the medieval and early modern world, c.1100-c.1700.  Her original and interdisciplinary research in history and literature is principally concerned with culture, life, belief, and identity in medieval and early modern Britain and Ireland (especially Wales and the Marches) as well as Europe and the Atlantic World. It seeks to provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of the lived experience of pre-modern religion, culture, society, and identity. It examines the complex nature and expression of popular beliefs and practices, culture (including language, folklore, customs, written and oral culture), lifecycle, and society (e.g., kinship, familial, communal, and other ties and contexts) for contemporaries, and uncovers how they were manifested, articulated, and negotiated both in life and death. In so doing, it makes a significant contribution to broader dialogues on identity formation, toleration and intolerance, nation, culture, the late medieval church, the laity, and the multi-faceted impact of the Reformation. 

Prof. Olson's research encompasses a range of topics, including: religion, popular piety and beliefs, devotion, lifecycle, law, language, popular culture, medieval manuscripts and the history of the book, community, late medieval and early modern Catholicism (including recusancy and Post-Tridentine Catholicism), the development of Protestantism, confessional identity, saints and their cults, and the Reformation(s). Other particular areas of interest include the digital humanities, probate records, folklore, oral culture, bardic poets, poetry, and patronage, the family, gender and women’s lives, travel, pilgrimage, and ethnography; magic and witchcraft, toleration and intolerance, Renaissance humanism, education, minority languages and cultures in medieval and early modern Britain, Ireland, and Europe, as well as the Celtic diaspora.

She studied medieval and early modern history at the University of Chicago, where she received her B.A. with special honors. She received an M.A. in Celtic Languages and Literatures and a joint Ph.D. in History and Celtic Studies from Harvard University. Her original Ph.D. research on religion and society in late medieval and Reformation Wales and the Marches was funded by the generous support of a Sir John Rhys Scholarship in Celtic Studies (Jesus College, Oxford), a Schallek Fellowship in Late Medieval British History (Medieval Academy of America), and a Charlotte Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship in Religious and Ethical Studies (Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation). She also received a variety of academic fellowships from Harvard University, including a Frederick Sheldon Travelling Fellowship, Graduate Society Fellowship, Dr. Stephen Jones and Wanda W. Jones Scholarship, Vernam Hull and Cullinane fellowships, and the Philip Hofer Prize.

Prof. Olson received a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in Medieval and Early Modern History to research popular religion, community, and confessional identity in Wales and the Marches from the fifteenth century to 1640, and also held a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Celtic from Harvard University. She was subsequently appointed to the post of Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern History at Bangor University (U.K.). While at Bangor, she was involved in research projects led by the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS), and an AHRC/ESRC project on the Experience of Worship in Late Medieval Parish Churches and Cathedrals in England and Wales. She also co-organized the Bangor Colloquia on Medieval Wales in addition to other conferences while at Bangor.

In 2016, Prof. Olson joined the History Department at San Jose State University, where she teaches a range of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses dealing mainly with the medieval and early modern periods. Her undergraduate courses include Witchcraft and Magic in the Medieval and Early Modern World (HIST 126); the Medieval British Isles (HIST 126); Medieval Worlds, 300-1000 (HIST 121A); Medieval Worlds, 1000-1500 (HIST 121B); Early Modern Europe (HIST 124); Medieval Travelers (HIST 126), Historiography (HIST 102), the History of Women in Europe (HIST 153), and Early Modern Britain and Ireland (HIST 146). She also teaches a variety of graduate classes. These have included topics like medieval and early modern popular culture; medieval and early modern religion, folklore, and society; the history of the book; travel and cross-cultural contacts; Middle Welsh poetry and prose (beginning to advanced), pre-modern Welsh culture, and society. 

She also is an Honorary Research Fellow at Bangor University (U.K.).

She is interested in hearing from potential graduate students with interests in medieval and early modern history (especially religious, cultural, social, intellectual, and political history), Celtic Studies, Britain and Ireland, Europe, the Atlantic World, medieval manuscripts and the history of the book, women and gender, poetry and patronage, religion and theology, the Reformation(s), Catholicism, Protestantism, and those with interdisciplinary interests in history, literature, folklore, and the digital humanities. 

Prof. Olson welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with other scholars, projects, and institutions in North America, the U.K., Ireland, Europe, and around the world.  


Select Fellowships and Scholarships:

Prof. Olson has been fortunate to receive a variety of generous fellowships, scholarships, and other grants to support her research and teaching. These have included support from (a select list): A variety of SJSU fellowships for research, professional developent, and travel; the Digital Ethnic Studies Consortium (Andrew Mellon Foundation); a Visiting Research Fellowship at St. John’s College, Oxford; a Visiting Research Fellowship at The Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (University of Edinburgh); a Visiting Fellowship at The Centre for the Study of the Book (Oxford University); The American Historical Association; the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol; The Celtic Research Trust; a Visiting Research Fellowship at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden; a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in Medieval and Modern History; a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Celtic Languages and Literatures (Harvard University); a Sir John Rhys Scholarship in Celtic Studies (Jesus College, Oxford University); a Medieval Academy of America and Richard III Society Schallek Fellowship in Late Medieval British History (The Medieval Academy of America); a Charlotte Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship in Religious and Ethical Studies (Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation); a Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship for Research in the U.K., Term-Time Merit Dissertation Fellowship, Dr. Stephen and Wanda Jones Scholarship, Cullinane Summer Research and Travel Fellowships, a Vernam Hull Fellowship, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Fellowship, Graduate Student Council Summer Research Grant, the Phillip Hofer Prize, and multiple Harvard Committee on Undergraduate Education Certificates of Distinction in Undergraduate Teaching (all from Harvard University).


Select Conferences and Invited Lectures:

Prof. Olson has regularly given papers at a wide variety of UK, US, Canadian, and other international conferences and other academic and non-academic venues (societies, archives, local/regional/national authorities/institutions, etc.) as an invited speaker. She has presented at select venues including: Oxford University; Harvard University; the University of Cambridge; Cardiff University; Aberystwyth University; Swansea University; Bangor University; the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies; Trinity College, Dublin; University College, Dublin; the South Wales Centre for Historical and Interdisciplinary Research; the National History Museum of Wales; the Hay Literary Festival (Hay-on-Wye); the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference; the International Conference of Celtic Studies; the Shropshire Archives; the Flintshire Historical Society; the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) conference; the Oxford-Cambridge Celtic Colloquium; the Harvard Celtic Colloquium; the California Celtic Studies Conference; the Celtic Studies Association of North America (CSANA) Conference; the International Medieval Congress (Kalamazoo); the Ecclesiastical History Society Conference; the Social History Society Conference; the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association Conference (PAMLA); the American Historical Association Conference, the International Medieval Congress (Leeds); and the Charles Homer Haskins Society Conference.


Editorial Board Memberships

Editorial Board Member, Religions (international, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Q1 journal on religions and theology): https://www.mdpi.com/journal/religions


Select Publications


  • Finding Salvation: Popular Religion, Culture, and Reformation in Wales and the Marches, c.1350-1603. (Oxford University Press/The British Academy, forthcoming).

Journal Articles, Book Chapters, and Encyclopedia Entries: 

  • “The Book of Ieuan ap Wiliam ap Dafydd ab Einws: Critical Edition with Commentary of His Chronicle of the Tudor England and Wales, Personal, Literary, and other Memoranda,” in Studia Celtica 58 (2024)
  • “Devotion, Humanism, and Manuscript Culture in Tudor Wales and the Marches: The Book of Ieuan ap Wiliam ap Dafydd ab Einws (NLW Llanstephan MS. 117) and His World” in Studia Celtica 57 (2023): 47-86.
  • "Alis ferch Gruffudd and the Athanasian Creed," in Michelle M. Sauer, Diane Watt, and Liz Herbert McAvoy, eds. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Medieval Women's Writing in the Global Middle Ages (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022-.)
  • “ The Acts of Union, Culture, and Religion in Wales, c.1450-1700,” in Helen Fulton, ed. The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 157-175.
  • “Earth and Sky Will Be Ablaze: The Apocalypse, Hell, and Judgement in Medieval and Early Modern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany,” in A Companion to Medieval and Early Modern Apocalypse, ed. Michael Ryan (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 331-377.
  • “Counting Communities, Counting Cultures: Problems and Progress with Churchwardens’ Accounts in Western England and Wales,” in Valerie Hitchman and Andrew Foster, eds. Views from the Parish: Early Modern Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 2015), 89-107.
  • “ ‘Slow and cold in the true service of God’: Popular Beliefs and Practices, Conformity, and Reformation” in Christianities in the Early Modern Celtic World, ed. Robert Armstrong and Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin (London: Palgrave, 2014), 92-107.
  • “Late Medieval Christianity, Saints’ Cults, and Popular Devotional Trends: Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth Century Religious Culture in Britain and Europe,” in Barry Lewis, ed. Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr: Essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales (Aberystwyth: Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, 2013), 327-374. 
  • “Y Ganrif Fawr?”: Lay Piety, Literature, and Patronage in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Wales,” in Studies in Church History vol. 48, The Church and Literature (Boydell and Brewer, 2012), 107-123. 
  • “Politics, Religion, and the Parish in Tudor England and Wales: A View from the Marches of Wales,” Recusant History 31:4 (2011), 527-536.
  • “Katheryn of Berain: Tudor Murderess or Patroness?,” in H.V. Bowen, ed. The Western Mail New History of Wales: Heroes and Villains (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2012), 52-60.
  • “Did the Welsh welcome the Reformation?,” in H.V. Bowen, ed. The Western Mail New History of Wales: Myths and Realities (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2011), 64-71.
  • “Life and Death in Denbigh, c.1250-1640: Culture, Society, Economy, and Religion in an Age of Transition,” in Denbigh Through the Ages, ed. T. Strickland (Denbigh, 2010). 
  • “Ar ffordd Pedr a Phawl: Welsh Pilgrimage and Travel to Rome, c.1200-1530,” The Welsh History Review 24:2 (December 2008), 1-40.
  • K.K. Olson and Huw Pryce, “The Reluctant Medievalist?” in Geraint Jenkins and Gareth Elwyn Jones, eds. Degrees of Influence: A Memorial Volume for Glanmor Williams (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008), 30-57. 

Conference Proceedings

  • Co-Editor, Proceedings of the 21st Annual Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 2001 (Harvard Univ Press, 2007)
  • Co-Editor, Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 2002 (Harvard Univ Press, 2008)



Media Contacts:
Prof. Olson has often contributed to BBC, S4C, ITV, KTVU, KRON, and other TV news programs, documentaries, and radio shows (both Welsh- and English-medium) on historical subjects and also acted as an historical consultant for TV documentaries, in addition to writing articles on medieval and early modern subjects for the Western Mail and the BBC History Magazine. She is available for media contacts about: 

  • The medieval to modern history of Britain and Ireland (including politics, the royal family, religion, society, culture, language, and more)
  • The medieval and early modern history of Wales and the Marches
  • Medieval and Early Modern Europe
  • The Celtic Diaspora
  • Religion and theology: The medieval church and the laity, the history of the Reformation, the parish, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Catholicism, recusancy, the saints, miracles, relics, rituals, and pilgrimage
  • A variety of other topics (see above, under research), including: Society, culture, language, politics, conquest, co-existence, the lifecycle, folk traditions, folklore, gender, family, daily life, and communities during the Middle Ages and early modern period
  • Medieval and early modern historical and literary sources and folklore: manuscripts, books, poetry, folklore, chronicles, and documents; especially probate and parish records for local, regional, gender, and family history.