If one wants to understand the modern Western world, studying the literature and history of the High Middle Ages can help says Marilynn Desmond, professor of English, literature and rhetoric. Many of the institutions familiar to us today were originally codified in medieval times, she says. "The institution of marriage, how identities are structured, Western notions of European ascendancy which led to the Colonial era... To develop any critical discussion of current culture, this historicity is necessary."
Desmond notes that medieval manuscripts remain very important conduits for literacy and historical concepts and attitudes. She says most of these manuscripts are in French, the vernacular language at the time, uniting those from England to the Eastern Mediterranean to Eastern Europe.
Her research into these manuscripts informs her teaching. "When I teach undergraduates, I want them to be good readers and writers and to be able to think critically," she says. "If they can do that with medieval literature, they can transfer that to contemporary literature."
Desmond also models interdisciplinary scholarship for developing professionals at the graduate level, calling the University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS) a vital component to such efforts. "Graduate students take courses across the disciplines," she says. "CEMERS is a very active research center and absolutely critical in modeling how to teach across the disciplines."
Ultimately, Desmond believes that understanding the past - and in a sense negotiating the past - is empowering for students. "They don't have to be reading contemporary literature to find their concerns reflecting back on them," she says. "Pre-modern culture also sometimes speaks to the present."
Last Updated: 7/31/12