To the Middle Ages: Graduate Students Invite UW Community to Explore the Medieval Era

The tale of Beowulf survives in a single manuscript dating to between the 8th and 11th centuries. This epic poem tells of the heroic Beowulf, who comes to the aid of King Hrothgar of the Danes, slays Grendel (the monster who has been plaguing Hrothgar’s hall), battles Grendel’s mother, and returns home to Sweden, to become king of his people. Later in life, Beowulf is called to battle with a dragon.  He triumphs—but is fatally wounded in the fight.

Though centuries have passed since the story of Beowulf was first written, it continues to live on, thanks to scholars such as those involved in the Medieval Studies graduate interest group.  Last year this group sponsored a public reading of the classic text, which attracted so many participants they were asked to vacate the local pub in which it was being held.  This year’s reading, scheduled for Wednesday, May 23, at the Simpson Center, anticipates an equal showing.

Funded by the Simpson Center, the Medieval Studies graduate interest group seeks to bring together medieval scholars from a variety of departments to foster collaboration between disciplines on topics concerning the Middle Ages. Medieval Studies group leaders Sarah Kathryn Moore (English) and Meagan Loftin (English) and other core organizers—Stefan Kamola  (History), Julie Tanaka (Information School) and Leanne Wheless  (School of Music)—regard crossdisciplinary work as a revival of a mode of thinking prevalent in the medieval period.  “During the Middle Ages, art, literature, music, religion, and magic were all intertwined,” explains Moore. “Because of this, it is important that medievalists approach scholarship with the same perspective that their subject of study represents.”

Moore became interested in medieval literature near the end of her undergraduate studies. A poet herself (she received her MFA in Creative Writing from the UW), she was inspired by medieval lyric and the ways that some contemporary poets, such as Susan Stewart and UW English professor Andrew Feld, draw from it in their own work. After beginning her graduate program in English at the UW, she met Loftin, who was also researching Middle Ages literature. They both were eager to get to know other scholars working in the medieval period across the university.  As they started networking, the idea for the Medieval Studies group emerged.

The group meets three times a quarter to explore topics such as medieval magic and medicine in the Middle Ages through book discussions.  They have organized lectures by medieval studies scholars. During Winter 2012, they invited Peter Diehl (History, Western Washington University) to campus to lecture on the religious, cultural, economic and social impacts of plague on western Europe. They also worked with the Department of English and the Textual Studies Program to host Lorraine Stock (English, Rice University), who spoke on primitivism and masculinity in London stage performances of Robin Hood.

Their meetings are frequently attended by undergraduates and community members interested in the era, from jewelry designers interested in creating Middle Ages-inspired accessories to—in the case of Diehl’s talk on plague—people in the field of medicine.

Moore and Loftin are very excited that the work of the Medieval Studies group appeals to people beyond the university. They see it as an opportunity to educate and debunk myths. “Some people believe that the Middle Ages were simply dark, backwards, and oppressive,” says Moore. “People are often surprised to learn about many of the advancements that were made during this time. And how lively medieval texts are – they can be really bawdy and suggestive, to the point that it can be embarrassing to read them aloud in a classroom setting!”

Loftin agrees, “So much of the way contemporary culture is structured was developed in the Middle Ages. Public health policies were first established in response to Europe’s plague epidemics; the Magna Carta, which was issued in 1215, is often acknowledged as the beginning of modern democracy; even the establishment of a ‘middle class’ can be traced back to the late Middle Ages.”

A few of the group members, including Loftin, have been invited to help inform an exhibit on modern heroic fantasy that will open at the EMP Museum. The exhibit is in its preliminary stages of development, and the medieval scholars are researching and writing material for a section of it that will explore fantasy archetypes, tracing the genealogy and historical/mythological roots of character types.

Moore and Loftin see great benefit from having an organized graduate student group. Moore describes each meeting as “a kaleidoscope of ideas”—inspiring and engaging in many ways. She explains, “As graduate students, we are pushed to specialize. Being part of this group has allowed me access to other people’s ideas and scholarship in ways that I wouldn’t otherwise have, broadening my own research and illuminating the texts I work with in new ways.”

For Loftin, having the opportunity and resources to invite visiting medieval scholars to the UW has been rewarding. “It reminds us that we are connected to a larger culture of medievalists and that the scholarship we’re creating here will help grow the field in a broader sense.”

Free and open to the public, the group’s public reading of Beowulf takes place on Wednesday, May 23, at 4:00 pm in Communications 202. Attendees are invited to bring their favorite version or translation, and all will be invited to read from their texts in whatever language they like (Old English is fine, as is modern English). The reading is anticipated to last about four hours, and costumes—though not required—are welcome. 

Don’t own a copy? Many hypertext versions of Beowulf exist online, such as this one from the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Collections.