The Gazette sat down with Professor of English Craig Williamson, the coordinator of the Medieval Studies program, to talk about the unique program at Swarthmore. Williamson discussed being the the importance of Tolkien and Pullman to medieval scholars.
Daily Gazette: How is the Medieval Studies department organized? How do majors approach the field?
Craig Williamson: Medieval studies is a cross-disciplinary program, so we require students to take courses in art history, history, literature, religion/philosophy and music … The benefits are that you get to 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 inter-disciplinary programs, but most of these inter-disciplinary programs 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 eighteenth century.
DG: Do you think there any problems with this approach to academia, or do your students lose anything by focusing exclusively on one time period?
CW: It might be that by having all these departments together around a time period, you would have a broad knowledge of the period across disciplines, but you might not have a broad knowledge of any particular common discipline such as history or English. Another problem is that so many departments at Swarthmore have a central place where they’re located, and the faculty for the cross-disciplinary programs are spread across campus, so it’s a little harder to meet.
DG: What kind of students are attracted to this era and this approach to academia?
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 schools 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 come 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 know that there is a bunch of Anglo-Saxon things in The Lord of the Rings. We had a lecturer, Tom Shippey, who is the world’s leading Tolkien scholar come and 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 is really important to 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.
DG: 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, 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 this medieval studies work. 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 Anglo-Saxons.
DG: How did your interest in medieval studies begin?
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 I started as a graduate student at Harvard and left after a year because I was kind of 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 twentieth century. So, I was really interested in how oral traditions like riddles and proverbs and 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 that same bridge period in English literature and study that. Which made it possible for me to study heroic epics, and riddles and 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 in Tolkien and 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 was 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 medievalist about how they came into the field, and the majority of them said that they had come through a Tolkien gateway. So that’s kind of interesting. So both of those explanations are probably true.
DG: So my next question was going to be, “Do you have a favorite area within medieval studies?” or did you just answer that?
CW: So, I’m really the world’s leading expert on Anglo-Saxon riddles. They are poems that are in a manuscript in the southwest of England in Exeter Cathedral library, and there are nearly one hundred 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 actually getting ready to write a book about riddles in old English and old Norse poetry and the connection between them.
DG: Okay, last question:
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.
What’s the “something”?
CW: Bread dough.