Humanities Moments

Beowulf Brought Me to Medieval Studies

Contributed by Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Notre Dame
Beowulf manuscript
Looking back, I can pinpoint many moments that poignantly mark my path toward medieval studies, but reading Beowulf was the moment that rendered all the moments before it visible. I have loved literature all my life, a statement that is perhaps unsurprising from someone who has dedicated herself to studying and teaching literature. My entrance into academia, however, was not a conventional one. I was a non-traditional undergraduate, returning to college in my late twenties to complete my degree in English and Secondary Education. While at Western State Colorado University, I fell in love with the intellectual labor of literary analysis, with the conversations about literature happening in the classroom, with the mentorship I received from my professors and also provided as a teaching assistant. I began to realize that my desire to be both a teacher and a life-long student of literature could be fulfilled by pursuing an academic career but remained undecided about an area of concentration.

When I read Beowulf in my fourth semester, my experience was the epitome of an epiphany. I have never been so captivated by a text; I was absolutely immersed in it. Every memory that I would now include on a timeline tracing my trajectory into academia and, specifically, my specialization in medieval literature was illuminated while reading that poem. It became a part of me. It is a part of me.

Most often, I work on Middle English texts. The thesis I wrote as a Master of Arts student at Oregon State University focused on two of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The dissertation I’m currently writing as a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame examines late Medieval English texts. But Beowulf is never far from my mind and always close to my heart. When I finally had the great fortune to see the only surviving manuscript containing the text that changed my life, I spent a long while admiring the rather unassuming artifact. While other visitors wandered past it for its plainness, I paid homage to the object that brought me to a place I never imagined I would be.

Title

Beowulf Brought Me to Medieval Studies

Description

Looking back, I can pinpoint many moments that poignantly mark my path toward medieval studies, but reading Beowulf was the moment that rendered all the moments before it visible. I have loved literature all my life, a statement that is perhaps unsurprising from someone who has dedicated herself to studying and teaching literature. My entrance into academia, however, was not a conventional one. I was a non-traditional undergraduate, returning to college in my late twenties to complete my degree in English and Secondary Education. While at Western State Colorado University, I fell in love with the intellectual labor of literary analysis, with the conversations about literature happening in the classroom, with the mentorship I received from my professors and also provided as a teaching assistant. I began to realize that my desire to be both a teacher and a life-long student of literature could be fulfilled by pursuing an academic career but remained undecided about an area of concentration.

When I read Beowulf in my fourth semester, my experience was the epitome of an epiphany. I have never been so captivated by a text; I was absolutely immersed in it. Every memory that I would now include on a timeline tracing my trajectory into academia and, specifically, my specialization in medieval literature was illuminated while reading that poem. It became a part of me. It is a part of me.

Most often, I work on Middle English texts. The thesis I wrote as a Master of Arts student at Oregon State University focused on two of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The dissertation I’m currently writing as a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame examines late Medieval English texts. But Beowulf is never far from my mind and always close to my heart. When I finally had the great fortune to see the only surviving manuscript containing the text that changed my life, I spent a long while admiring the rather unassuming artifact. While other visitors wandered past it for its plainness, I paid homage to the object that brought me to a place I never imagined I would be.

Source

Dated to the late tenth or early eleventh century, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written Old English. The narrative tells the story of the warrior Beowulf in 3,182 alliterative lines and recounts his battles with Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon who ultimately brings about his demise. It survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, part of the bound volume Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, which is housed at the British Library in London. The volume suffered substantial damage from a fire in the 1700s, so it is very fragile in addition to being very precious as one of the four major manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Date

Fall 2013

Contributor

Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Notre Dame

Identifier

beowulf-brought-me-to-medieval-studies

Referrer

National Humanities Center's Graduate Teaching Residency, December 2020

Location