WMU News

WMU to offer prestigious NEH Summer Seminar at Cambridge

June 19, 1997

KALAMAZOO--Scholars at Western Michigan University's Medieval Institute have been selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to travel to England's Cambridge University and offer a summer seminar that will give American college teachers a rare chance to examine Old English manuscripts.

"Old English Literature in Its Manuscript Context" is the title of the six-week seminar funded by an $89,107 grant from the NEH. The seminar is designed to consider the special issues, problems and methodologies that have arisen in the past decade of Anglo-Saxon manuscript studies. Participants will have an opportunity to study some selected treasures housed at the Parker Library at Cambridge's Corpus Christi College. Dr. Paul E. Szarmach, director of WMU's Medieval Institute, will co-direct the seminar with Timothy C. Graham of Cambridge, who has been a visiting scholar at the institute for the past three winter and spring terms.

The July 14-Aug. 22 seminar in Cambridge is one of only 16 such sessions for college teachers funded by the NEH this year and the only one in the area of medieval studies. A selection committee at WMU screened applications from around the country and selected 15 scholars from as far away as Hawaii who will receive stipends to attend the session. Those attending will have an opportunity to examine original manuscripts and books that few Americans have been able to see.

Such examination of manuscripts is considered critical to understanding and interpreting the works contained in them, Szarmach says. Most scholars only see these works on microfilm or collected in books in which many of the interpretive decisions already have been made. Recent trends in manuscript studies point to the need to go back to the original manuscripts for more accurate interpretations.

"When you get your hands on the real thing, you often discover that the manuscript in hand is not at all what you have been imagining it to be," Szarmach says. "There are some things you cannot see on microfilm and they affect the way you interpret a work. This is not a seminar about seeing pretty books. It is a seminar about the problems of interpreting and understanding those works."

Graham agrees and notes as an example that when people read Old English poetry, they see it in print form broken into lines and half-lines. In the original manuscript, the poem looks more like prose. Few scholars, however, ever actually see that original manuscript.

"Not only is it unusual for scholars to have this kind of access to the Parker Library," Graham says, "it is absolutely unprecedented for an activity of this sort to take place there. The library has very strict entry criteria and previous scholarly colloquia there have been conducted internally, and never on this scale."

Graham's Cambridge ties and earlier work at the Parker Library provided WMU with an opportunity to launch an international collaborative effort between Cambridge and the University's Medieval Institute and its Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies and Manuscript Research.

"The seminar will offer an outstanding opportunity to encounter some of the most important Anglo-Saxon manuscripts under privileged conditions of access." Szarmach says. "Without Tim Graham's connections to the Parker Library, this would not have been possible."

The library at Corpus Christi College was founded in the 14th century, but was greatly enhanced by a bequest of Archbishop Matthew Parker in the late 16th century. Upon his death, the library received his holdings of medieval manuscripts and early printed books collected following the dissolution of monasteries that occurred during the Reformation.

Among the ninth- through 11th-century manuscripts housed there and available for study by the seminar participants is a ninth-century manuscript that is the earliest surviving copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. That prose and poetry collection is considered the most important source of knowledge about the history of late Anglo-Saxon England. Participants also will examine works by the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, historian and theologian, and Wulfstan, the period's major prose writer.

Co-directors Szarmach and Graham will share their own extensive research backgrounds as they guide participants. Both are experts on the topic of Old English literature and are well versed in the new technologies available to scholars studying such texts. Szarmach is an internationally recognized authority on Anglo-Saxon literature and one of the directors of the "Electronic Beowulf Project." That digital imaging project has resulted in making an electronic facsimile of the epic poem Beowulf available through the Internet to scholars around the globe.

Graham will bring a special "insider's" knowledge to the seminar, having spent five years examining "The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts" at the Parker Library. That work, which he completed in

1994, left him with a detailed knowledge of all the library's holdings. He also has used ultra-violet and cold fiber-optic light to produce new editions of damaged Old English texts that were previously indecipherable.

The is the second such NEH summer seminar for college teachers that has been offered under the auspices of the Medieval Institute and its Rawlinson Center. A 1995 NEH summer seminar was held on the WMU campus and focused on the impact computing technology and digital imagery has had on the examination of manuscripts such as Beowulf. Szarmach directed that effort and Graham assisted him.

The seminar is intended for instructors at two- and four-year colleges -- institutions without the research support structures available in a university setting -- as well as independent scholars. The seminar is an opportunity to extend such teachers' research experience and give them the opportunity to live and work in a community of learning with others engaged in similar research.

The seminar's format will include a blend of regular sessions, workshops and individual discussions

with the seminar directors. In addition to the work seminar participants will do as a group, each college teacher will be expected to pursue an individual research project. During the seminar, those attending also will have an opportunity to travel to the International Medieval Congress at Leeds and the British Library in London.

WMU's Medieval Institute is internationally known as a site for research on all aspects of life in the Middle Ages. Each May, more than 2,500 medieval studies specialists from around the globe converge on the WMU campus for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. This year's event marked the 32nd time the congress has convened at WMU for the world's largest gathering of medieval scholars.

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