Q&A with a Medievalist

Robert Holowka
Q and A with a Medievalist

Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom Professor of English Literature Craig Williamson is the coordinator of the College's Medieval Studies Program. In the following, adapted from an article by Daily Gazette Staff Reporter Robert Holowka '12, he discusses the program and the relationship between the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and medieval literature.

Robert Holowka: How is the Medieval Studies program organized? How do majors approach the field?

Chaucer

Craig Williamson: Medieval studies is an interdisciplinary program, so we require students to take courses in art history, history, literature, religion/philosophy, and music. The benefits are that you can pull together courses around a single time frame and a single cultural area from a number of disciplines.

So, for example, you can begin to see how certain kinds of medieval architecture might impinge upon literary texts, or you might see how certain philosophical concepts are often discussed in Chaucer. Also, you might be able to study Beowulf from the point of view of a historian and a literary critic. We are trying to increase visitation to one another's classes. That's a rare opportunity for students.

The College has so many interdisciplinary programs, but most of them are focused on modern times. The Medieval Studies Program is one of the few programs that does this in an age gone by. We're basically doing work from the fourth or fifth century to the 15th century.

RH: What kinds of students are attracted to this era and this approach to academia?

Beowulf

Craig Williamson is also the coordinator of the College's Honors Program, which is recognized for its academic rigor and unique position in American higher education.

CW: I suppose they tend to be very committed students. They come to this field via a variety of routes. You might have student who has studied a lot of languages in high school and wants to continue that work with medieval languages. You might get a student who's always been interested in Arthurian legend and wants to study various tales about King Arthur. You might get somebody who has always been a Tolkien fanatic and knows that Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon scholar and knows that there are a number of Anglo-Saxon themes and genres in The Lord of the Rings.

We recently had Tom Shippey, the world's leading Tolkien scholar, give two lectures on The Lord of the Rings, one of which was about Tolkien's medieval roots in terms of language and myths. That evening, I heard a number of students say that Tom's work in philology was really important to their understanding of Tolkien. I also heard at least two people say they decided to become philologists that night. I saw students actually asking Tom for his autograph, which I had never seen before.

RH: What are the career opportunities for a medieval studies major?

CW: We had two medieval studies majors last year. One is doing medieval research at Cambridge and the other is pursuing religious studies at a Jewish theological seminary. A number of universities have medieval studies programs where you can continue to do work in the field. Many medieval studies students who take a lot of courses in, say, English, get a Ph.D. in English, but they'll write a dissertation on Chaucer or on the Anglo-Saxons.

RH: How did your interest in medieval studies begin?

Chaucer

CW: There are two interesting answers to that. I'm not sure which one is the true answer. After I was an undergraduate at Stanford and started as a graduate student at Harvard, I left after a year because I was tired of going to school. I went to East Africa and worked for the American Friends Service Committee there. East Africa is a place where the transition between an oral tradition of storytelling and the written tradition is taking place in the 20th century. So, I was really interested in how oral traditions like riddles, proverbs, ghost stories, and other forms like that crossed the bridge into literary works like poems and novels.

I went back to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and decided that I would find and study that same bridge period in English literature, which made it possible for me to study heroic epics, riddles, proverbs, and so on. I studied Anglo-Saxon at Penn and part of my work was studying linguistic anthropology. So that's one answer - that's the answer that I've always held for myself.

I realized the other answer a few years ago when one of my students nudged me into teaching a course on Tolkien and [Philip] Pullman and their literary roots. I began to realize while I was rereading and teaching Tolkien that before I had read any other medieval literature, the first serious riddles I ever read were in The Hobbit. Oddly enough, when I got to graduate school, I did a dissertation on Anglo-Saxon riddles. I began to think that Tolkien was in some ways a private gateway for me to come into this field. And then I read an article which said that a study had been done amongst medievalists and the majority of them said that they had come to the field through a Tolkien gateway. So that's kind of interesting. Both of those explanations are probably true.

RH: So my next question was going to be, "Do you have a favorite area within medieval studies?" or did you just answer that?

Chaucer

Williamson's course on Chaucer and medieval literature includes readings of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

CW: I'm really the world's leading expert on Anglo-Saxon riddles - poems that are in a manuscript in Exeter Cathedral Library in the southwest of England. There are nearly 100 of them. I am the editor of the standard edition of these riddles and I also have a book of translations and commentary about the riddles. So, I actually have two books on the riddles, which is one more book than anyone else has ever written. I'm now getting ready to write a third book about riddles in Old English and Old Norse poetry, the connection between them, and their relation to the fiction of Middle-earth.

RH: Okay, last question. Can you tell me an Old English riddle?

CW: Here's one that has both a plain solution and a bawdy solution. It's a double entendre riddle.

I heard of something rising in a corner,
Swelling and standing up, lifting its cover.
The proud-hearted bride grabbed at that boneless
Wonder with her hands; the prince's daughter
Covered that swelling thing with a swirl of cloth.

RH: What's the "something"?

CW: Well, the plain solution is bread dough.