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Medieval Studies at Western (M.J. Toswell)

29 Apr 2020 11:05 AM | Marc Cels (Administrator)

Medieval Studies at Western

M.J. Toswell

Regrettably, we will not be welcoming Canadian medievalists to the University of Western Ontario at the beginning of June this year for what some of us still think of as the Learneds, Congress for the young sprigs. However, let me welcome you all in spirit if not in person, with a brief update on the field at Western. Since Michael Fox wrote an account of medieval studies on the main campus at Western and Susan Small wrote concerning King’s College (Florilegium 20 [2003], 77-80 and 81-2), more has changed in field at Western than I would have expected. Fox, for example, speaks of a program in Medieval Studies in active development, but it took many more years before that development resulted in a minor and then a major. The "churn" rate in faculty (the term used by the senior administration at Western) has been pretty high, and that has meant significant changes in courses and events at Western. On the other hand, we have enjoyed a significant increase in resources. All told, like many of our colleagues around the world, we have tried to renovate and shift our approaches to a more global consideration of the Middle Ages and to a broader temporal approach as well. We have our successes, and we have our failures. Here are some of the details with respect to programs, faculty, events, resources, and a return to programs at the end to turn to our future.

In 1999, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities endorsed an interdisciplinary program in medieval studies in principle, including a required first-year course in the subject, introducing some of the many areas of our subject. It will probably not surprise seasoned colleagues to learn that the required first-year course was first offered in 2012-2013, and the minor in medieval studies was approved that year. This full-year introduction to the Middle Ages has been offered every year since, with an average enrolment of 65-75 students. Within a year of the minor, a major in medieval studies opened. Students have completed over the years capstone courses on manuscript materials held in the library, taken an upper-year introduction to manuscripts taught by Jim Grier in the Don Wright Faculty of Music, enjoyed Medieval Days a few times, and started us on a way forward.

The faculty, however, has been a more complex story. Departures and retirements have been a large part of our story for the last eighteen years across the campus, but there have been some very happy arrivals: Donna Rogers, an expert on Spanish medieval literature and food, decamped from Brescia to Algoma; Marjorie Ratcliffe, our main campus medieval hispanist, retired; Francis Gingras left the Department of French for Université de Montréal but Mario Longtin joined the Department of French Studies; Henrik Lagerlund left Philosophy to return to Stockholm; History attracted Margaret McGlynn and Eona Karakacili to join Maya Shatzmiller, but Eona moved onwards and Margaret moved upwards so that she is largely in administration these days; Kathy Brush retired from teaching art history in our Visual Arts department, but now Cody Barteet offers courses in the Italian florescence and especially in the late medieval/early modern period in Hispanoamerica; English lost Russell Poole to retirement, hired Jane Tolmie only to lose her to Queen’s and their Women’s Studies department, and then very successfully attracted Richard Moll, Anne Schuurman, and Michael Fox; at King’s, Susan Small and Paul Werstine in Modern Languages have been joined by Gyongyi Hegedus in Religious Studies and by Adam Bohnet in History; at Huron, Stephen McClatchie, by training a scholar of music, is offering courses in medieval liturgy and early history of the church; Dominick Grace remains in English at Brescia; so also Laurence de Looze, Melitta Adamson, and James Miller hold down the fort in the Department of Languages and Cultures (formerly Modern Languages); Jim Grier remains as our expert in early medieval music but Terence Bailey, who attracted the CANTUS project to Western and fostered its development, retired so that the CANTUS project has moved with some of his students and colleagues to the University of Waterloo–but Western is happy to have Kate Helsen as a new medieval musicologist engaged in digital humanities research including her Optical Neume Recognition project and her Melodic Construction and Evolution project on plainchant. We also rejoice in a few fellow travelers: Paul Potter held the chair in the History of Medicine in the Schulich Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, and since his retirement the Jason A. Hannah Chair is held by Shelley McKellar, principally in the Department of History, but with a cross-appointment to Surgery; both have some interest in matters medieval. The Department of Classics also has some colleagues who work on late antiquity: Alex Meyer serves on the medieval studies steering committee and teaches history of the late Roman empire, and Beth Greene is a late Roman archaeologist and social historian. Colleagues in the Renaissance/early modern field in various departments also overlap with our interests at times.

Those shared interests have meant some very successful events in medieval studies over the years. Michael Fox organized a conference on the reception of the Old Testament in Old and Middle English, which emerged as a collection of essays published by University of Toronto Press. Jane Tolmie organized two small and very successful symposia/conferences called "The New Medievalisms," and involving young scholars with their first major projects reading out long sections in a workshop format enlivened and enlightened by two senior scholars offering the first rounds of advice. Many books and major articles emerged in the wake of those conferences in 2004 and 2005. The International Society for Studies in Medievalism came to Western in 2007, with the principal highlight of an opening plenary talk by Terry Jones. (Uniquely in my experience, a local limo firm offered to take my keynote speaker from London to Pearson airport all alone in a limo, free, so long as the speaker would agree to one brief conversation with the driver and the signing of one T-shirt. He did, and my budget for the event was saved.)  Kathy Brush organized a whole series of events and a graduate course on medievalism in Canada, borrowing objects from the Malcove Collection at the ROM and from many other locations in order to put on a series of exhibitions at Museum London, the McIntosh Gallery at Western, and the Visual Arts gallery spaces, culminating in a collection of papers. Mario Longtin took on the editorship of ROMARD (Research on Medieval and Renaissance Drama) for some years, fitting the annual publication of the journal around a busy schedule of presenting plays in London (including a goodly number of medieval French farces). Margaret McGlynn organizes conferences on law and governance in pre-modern Britain (so far in 2011 and 2015 but with more promised), which elegantly meet in the Moot Court at the Law Building. And there are many other events large and small, and a very impressive array of scholarship in train and completed.

Our resources for medieval studies are impressive. First among many useful features of Western are the buildings themselves, which except for a weird set of three or four aberrations in the late 60's and early 70's are all Gothic Revival efforts with vertical height, various kinds of towers and crenellations, lancet windows and stone tracery. The Collegiate Gothic effect is heightened by the firm adherence through the years to using limestone as part of the facade of every building–it does not always work, but it is always there. This means that reference to the medieval origins of universities can include a walk outside around the campus to admire architectural features on nearly every building. University College, the first building completed on the campus in 1924, has lost its barrel-vaulted ceilings, but the Middlesex Memorial Tower continues to soar over the campus, and to carry the flag, even though the latest branding initiative has chosen a modernized crest and a turn away from this iconic building. Since the undergraduate interdisciplinary program in medieval studies began, the Western Libraries have played their part in providing additional resources, buying one complete manuscript known as Canon Grandel’s prayerbook, and acquiring a sheaf or two of manuscript fragments, single pages from known manuscripts such as the Llangattock Breviary, and manuscripts that were probably among those disassembled by Otto Ege at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. Rebinding of one early printed book also resulted in two manuscript pages emerging from the padding of the covers, and other pieces, including coins, have added to the Special Collections under the care of the new curator, Debbie Meert-Williston. In fact, the library is collaborating with some researchers on campus, led by Andrew Nelson and Ron Martin, to do some spectroscopy and MRI tests of the Western manuscript collection. During Kathy Brush’s research into the medieval collections in London, she determined that more materials are available than have been generally realized, including manuscript materials at King’s, and a papal bull at Huron. Finally, Western was particularly lucky to receive a foundational donation of 45,000 books (with another 10,000 or so following later) from John Davis Barnett in 1918, a collection that reached across many subjects and established Western’s first dedicated on-campus library (Lawson Hall in 1934) as a collection worth building and maintaining. As a result, Western’s book collections were quite superb through to the third quarter of the twentieth century, and often materials could be found in Weldon Library that were otherwise unavailable anywhere on the continent. We have been lucky in this respect.

Now, however, transformational change is taking over in many ways. Our book collections are being drawn down and consolidated with those of other southern Ontario libraries, and the ramifications of this gradual displacement of printed matter are not as clear to campus researchers as they could be. We have great difficulty, because of the downturn in enrolments in the humanities, in obtaining budget lines with which to recruit new faculty, so we watch our graduate students make difficult choices with regret and uncertainty. This spring, we have concluded that our program in medieval studies must broaden its horizons, temporally speaking, and accept courses in late antiquity at one end of the field, and in the Renaissance or early modern period at the other. Less clear at this point is the geographic expansion of our field into global medievalism. We are lucky at Western to have some faculty members who already work in medieval Korea (Adam Bohnet) or the baroque in Mexico addressing the architecture of Yucatán before and after first contact with the colonial powers of Europe (Cody Barteet). In the medieval studies program we have also expanded into the world of medievalism, albeit very tentatively, and in our individual courses we are embracing new ways of seeing our field: looking at the Vinland Sagas as Norse settler colonialism, queering the perception of Richard I of England, embracing the radical feminine power of Hildegard of Bingen. My own paper at Congress in early June was another look at Champlain’s astrolabe, that most medieval of instruments lost near the Ottawa River and reconfigured (upside-down) in the famous statue of Champlain on Nepean Point behind the National Gallery of Canada. Maybe, I hope, I will be able to make my argument about the lost astrolabe, the statue, and the nations involved with both on another day and in another venue, to my colleagues in the world of medieval studies in Canada.


  • 29 Apr 2020 11:32 AM | Marc Cels (Administrator)
    Indeed, it is very disappointing that we will not meet again in London. Jane did all the work of making our local arrangements before COVID-19 caused the cancellation of Congress 2020. Thanks so much for that work, Jane, and for this update on MS at Western.
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