Exploring Graduate Research at the Oxford Medieval Society

From politics to poetry, and pots to palaeography - Veronique Thouroude reports the rude good health of Oxford Medieval studies, and of the society founded in 1927 to promote them.

The Oxford Medieval Society has been a forum for sharing and discussing research in Oxford since 1927. The Society's records contain summaries of the astonishingly wide variety of projects presented here, ranging from Richard Southern's work on twelfth-century scholasticism, to Patrick Wormald discussing Bede's Gens Anglorum; from Eric Stanley's analysis of the narrative structure of Beowulf, to Michael Clancy's studies of  Abelard. During the 2013-14 academic year, we were lucky enough to host three meetings on a similarly broad variety of research areas. At the Michaelmas meeting, Stewart Brookes and Daniel Wakelin discussed emerging approaches in palaeography. In Hilary Term, we joined with the Oxford University Byzantine Society to hear Garth Fowden and Hugh Kennedy share their research on the Near East in the tenth century. Sophie Page and Carl Watkins finished the year by presenting their views on medieval magic and the supernatural.

Medieval document with coloured images

With this heritage of sharing new research across the wide field of Medieval Studies, it seemed natural for the Oxford Medieval Society to expand its remit to the research carried out by graduate students. Graduates have always been a vital part of the Society's membership and are always welcome at meetings and events. Now we hope to provide graduates with the opportunity to share their research in a similar way to the invited speakers who have been presenting at the Society since its foundation. The Oxford Medieval Society's inaugural Graduate Research Presentation Day took place at the start of Trinity Term 2014, and we hope that there will be many more to come. As Laura Varnam, the President of the Society, explained to the participants, this event was conceived of as a friendly environment for members of different faculties and disciplines to meet and share ideas. Informal mentoring and advice was offered during the day from advanced D.Phil students, who chaired the sessions of research papers and gave feedback. All papers were of a very high standard of scholarship and confidently presented — the participants are all to be thanked and congratulated for taking part.

The following summaries demonstrate the breadth of graduate research in Medieval Studies currently being undertaken in Oxford. The combination of our speakers into thematic panels highlighted some emerging threads of common interest that link students across faculties and programmes of study.

The first panel of the event brought together medievalists who were at different stages of their research careers, but their projects were united by a method of asking complex research questions of textual and intellectual history. Ryan Kemp opened the event by discussing his Medieval History M. St project on the formation of the 'Brut' tradition, a form of historiography that looked back to myths of the Trojan War to create a sense of "British" identity. He was followed by Robert Smith, who was at the time applying for the graduate course that he is now taking at the University of Toronto. Robert's paper examined how Einhard, the Carolingian intellectual, used hagiography to critique the political regime he was closely related to. This first session was concluded with Debby Grice's analysis of a condemnation of heresies from the University of Paris in the 1240s, which forms part of her History D.Phil. Debbie explained how this particular text reveals the complex relations between the University of Paris and the medieval Papacy.

Interdisciplinary approaches to medieval texts were central to the following two papers. Tony Harris, a doctoral student with the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, visited us in Oxford to discuss his work on Aelfric, the Anglo-Saxon polymath. Tony's work analyses the vocabulary employed in Aelfric's writings on theories of time and the calculation of Easter; he found that much of this language fused Latin and vernacular terms to explain these technical concepts. The second speaker, Vincent Robert-Nicoud, is currently doing a D.Phil in Oxford's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. Vincent explained the mathematical aspects of Late Medieval devotional poetry, and demonstrated that a poem by Jean Meschinot could be read with much more numerical symbolism than a modern reader could expect.

Medieval literary representations of gender relations have provided stimulating projects for our next two graduate researchers. Jasmin Leuchtenberg introduced us to her work on the Middle High German Romance Paizival, which is part of her M.St in Medieval Studies. Jasmin's analysis of the text explained how irony in both characters' dialogue and the narrative voice shaped the appearance of the key figures in this Arthurian story. Similarly, D.Phil student Rachel Delman deployed literary analysis to explore how the fifteenth-century poem The Assembly of Ladies represented the female narrator and characters. Rachel compared the physical spaces described in the text to contemporary concepts of domestic architecture, explaining how the household shaped gender relations.

Our final panel focused on manuscript studies, which underlies so many fresh perspectives in the field of Medieval Studies — as we learnt in Michaelmas Term from Daniel Wakelin and Stewart Brookes. Our first speaker, Katherine Sedovic, used her research for the M.St in the History of Art to explain the problematic relationships that various disciplines have had with marginalia. Xavier Bach, who is researching his D.Phil in the Faculty of Linguistics, then introduced us to some recently discovered thirteenth-century Occitan manuscripts. Xavier explained the linguistic and codicological significance of this find: the texts are merchants' letters written with some unusual vernacular forms; the writing material is paper, rarely found in Western Europe at the time.

The Oxford Medieval Society would like to thank The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) for sharing their facilities at Radcliffe Humanities and supporting this event. We are particularly grateful to all the participants, speakers and respondents, for contributing to such a positive and stimulating discussion of new research in Medieval Studies. We hope that this group of graduate researchers, and those who will follow them in the coming years, will lay the groundwork for future speakers' meetings at the Oxford Medieval Society. Finally, thanks are due to all of you who contribute to the Oxford Medieval Society throughout the year. The much-appreciated support of all subscribing members of the Society keeps Oxford at the forefront of the dynamic field of Medieval Studies.