Thursday, September 17, 2009

Becoming a Medievalist

I received the following e-mail this morning [with redactions lest the person not want to be indentified]:
Ever since I read the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien in jr. high I have had the desire to be a Medievalist at the University level. In January I will be starting my first semester at college. My question is what kinds of classes should I take in order to provide a good base to work towards becoming a medievalist? Of course I will need to take courses in English literature, but other than that I am not so sure. At the moment I am thinking of taking an introductory course in Latin. Any suggestions would be more than welcome.

I was thinking about transforming into Professor Awesome, PhD and offering up little nuggets of wisdom about not neglecting Western Civ, philosophy, and perhaps considering German (especially if he's interested in the philology side), but I'm wondering what the Wordhoarders would suggest, particularly thought how have pursued the academic track.

So, ymbsittendra, what would you all suggest?


  1. I consistently notice that one woefully overlooked field of study for a lot of Medievalists is archaeology (does "handmaiden of hsitory" sound familiar to anyone?). I'd see if any sort of medieval archaeology course is available, or, barring that, a course in the Archaeology of Europe(or wherever the student's geographical interests might be) that will at least cover that period for some time.

  2. Latin, Latin, Latin. And then, either French or German, because you need to have those languages out of the way for grad school.

    Western or World History Survey, both halves. A course on the Bible as lit, or history of Christianity. Any history courses in Medieval and late Antiquity, unless they are doing Later Medieval, in which case, EM courses. Basic Classics courses, so that all the reference points are there. Art History that covers Antiquity through the MA.

  3. I fully agree with ADM above: Latin above all else. Yes, introductory Latin, then whatever other Latin one can get--as much and as often as possible (if there's one thing I regret and now feel deficient in, it's not enough Latin when I had the chances).

    Also, any classes on the Bible, history of Christianity, Classics, Late Antiquity, and anything with "medieval" or "Middle Ages" in the title--wide-ranging is good, in any/all disciplines available.

  4. I personally believe that Professor Awesome Ph.D. would recommend that you follow in the footsteps of the literary André Marek and begin living as close to a medieval life as is possible in the modern era.

    You'll need to learn Latin, of course, but should also focus on a medieval dialect like Occitan or Icelandic. You should also learn blacksmithing, arrowsmithing, archery, jousting, etc. Not just in books, but in life.

    Until these things are accomplished, Professor Awesome Ph.D. could possibly consider you a good medieval scholar, but a far cry from a Medievalist.

  5. All kidding aside, I would seek out classes on Medieval philosophy or a class on Early Christian philosophy. St. Augustine to St. Aquinas is a long period of time, but they have different influences. Augustine is very Platonic where Aquinas is Aristotelian. Averroes, Maimonides, and alfarabi should be on your reading/class list.

    I wish there had been classes in Bible as Medieval artifact -- a literature class that focused on how Medieval cultures looked at the Bible -- rather than the traditional Bible as Lit class (the one I took) which is more general in nature and often taught with a little snark depending on your Professor.

  6. What I would say is already covered, so the best I can do is fine tune. Of course, much of this is going to depend on the college being attended:

    1) Latin and/or Greek--absolutely, never too soon to get these very well under the ol' belt. And the sooner started, the better. With a good foundation in Latin, it is pretty easy to jump to Old or modern French, Occitan, etc.

    2) History of Western Civ--command of the basics of history is a must, and if such a course isn't offered, take courses in history.

    3) Classical Literature--any course here will do, Mythology, Epic lit, etc, but any and all Classical history/literature courses

    4) Bible...though as a general rule I'd steer clear of Bible as Lit folk and go the Religion/Theology dept and take Intro to the Bible or Intro to OT and Intro to NT, or whatever the school offers, a much better introduction to the text, its history, the issues, etc. Unless of course we're talking about *MY* course Bible as Lit.

    5) History of Christianity or History of Christian Thought

    6)Linguistics, a good, solid grounding in linguistics will be very, very helpful (more so if you go a lit route, but even going history or archeology etc a modicum of linguistic understanding and training will carry you far

    7) Some classical and medieval art history...few things can communicate the worldview of a people quicker than their art, so a good art history course in the periods are a good idea

    8) At least a crash course in German. Not only for the practical reason of needing in grad school, but also because if you have a Germanic language and Latin, you've a good basis to move into almost any medieval subfield that interests you.

    9) Did I happen to mention Latin?

    10) if your school has a senior thesis option, do it, and of course, do it on a medieval topic

    11) Finally....some archeology, or archeology-art history combo....

    Before revealing my heresy, let me say this too. Look carefully at your distribution requirements. Most places allow 300 and 400 level classes to fulfill those requirements....and you can then as a fresh or sophmore take upper division courses in areas you want/need as a medievalist to fulfill those requirements. Plan carefully....the school's course catalog and schedules for the last few years are your dear friends. Use them wisely, use them well, and you'll have crafted yourself a fabulous jumping off place for a medievalist career.

    So now here's my heresy: I'd not put medieval courses at the top of my list. Of course you're going to take them, and you should. *BUT* if you know that you want to be a medievalist of some kind, you'll spend your grad career mastering the medieval and becoming an expert. You have very few opportunities to master the background material that every medieval writer knew. So I'd beef up the background material, and do the reading about the medieval in directed readings, summer stuff, etc.

    My .01....

  7. "the swain's" last point is a good one.

    If you end up in academia in a history dept., all those modernists will be convinced you can teach any obscure period -- and compared to the modernists, that may be right.

  8. I agree with Colin. I'd say that whatever you do, get a good dash of archaeology and if possible some history of architecture into the schedule. And another thing I always tell to archaeology students: Go get some hands-on experience by working at least a few days with a historical craft technique once - be it woodworking, metalworking, textile crafts (the one most dear to me) or whatever else - glassmaking, goldsmithing,... A little bit of practical knowledge about any of the historical crafts and techniques will quickly show the enormous level of skill and the astounding efficiency of historical craftspersons. And this practical knowledge and own experience come in especially handy if the topic of research is connected to the crafts tried - but in any case it's just good to know, from own exhaustion, frustration and success, how much time, knowledge and effort goes into spinning, weaving, iron-smelting, charcoal-making, forging, making and firing pottery products, and so on and on.

  9. theswain's last point is a good one--the background is essential, while the medieval will come as you specialize.

    One other point I thought is important in light of the original question. The student wrote, "Of course I will need to take courses in English literature"--and while it is good to recognize English literature as a strong and vibrant field in medieval studies, the student should also be encouraged to not only focus on English as a possible (eventual) specialty. There is plenty of history, art history, philosophy, etc. for medieval studies too--and all of these are viable fields to consider for specializing beyond English.

  10. I mentioned this also on the facebook discussion, but I thought it would be good to note it here: I was an undergraduate student when I first went to Kalamazoo - I was still in the middle of my program, and had just taken two medieval studies courses. Experiencing this big conference really opened my eyes to what being a medievalist is and all the options on what I could do. I would encourage anyone to go.

  11. I second the 'zoo comment. I began attending as an undergrad and it helped me more than I can say. The opportunity to converse with and learn from my "footnotes," as it were, was just as valuable as any course I took. Kalamazoo always recharges my scholastic batteries. BTW, has anyone mentioned Latin yet? Take Latin. Much Latin.

  12. As a student of mathematics, I would recommend at least reading a book or auditing a course on the history of mathematics. There's an interplay between the mathematics a culture has mastered and not just its technological development, but its outlook on the world. If you understand what a culture's mathematics is like, you gain a whole other dimension to your understanding of its direction and purpose.

    Just to give a couple of examples, the Mayans had a numeration system that was uniquely suited to astronomy but sucked for computation. Despite having a zero (necessary for advanced arithmetic), they had a mixed-base number system that made even simple addition difficult; consequently they had exquisitely accurate calendars but not much else using math. The ancient Egyptians had a kick-ass multiplication algorithm that actually may be superior to ours, and they had a fraction system that was so useful that it stuck around through medieval times. But their fraction system relied heavily on table lookups and memorization, and so while an amazing variety of arithmetic was do-able, solving equations of the type we teach junior high schoolers to do nowadays was well-nigh impossible. And thus because of the way the Egyptians structured their fractions, the world's technological development was kneecapped until the invention of modern fractions and decimals.

    Just my two cents.