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A couple of weeks ago I was asked to design a workshop for a group of Year 9 students who will be visiting the University of Manchester next week. These students have all been nominated by the schools for the Department of Education’s DUX Award Scheme.  Whatever the criticisms there have been of the awards themselves, I am particularly excited to meet these young people from across the UK and to work with them on a subject I’m passionate about.

I’m going to be running a medieval literature workshop investigating what illuminated manuscripts can tell us about literary tastes, book production and consumption in the later Middle Ages. Before I went to university I had never encountered any literature pre-Shakespeare; neither had many of my peers. It was a scary moment in my first week to be given a piece of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and told to have it translated ahead of our first tutorial a few days later. Languages had never been something I found easy and the (shortened) section we’d been given seemed an impossible task:

Hēr Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rīces ond Westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum dædum, būton Hamtūnscīre, ond hē hæfde þā oþ hē ofslōg þone aldormon þe him longest wunode.

(In this year, Cynewulf and the West Saxon counsellors deprived Sigebyrht of this kingdom for [his] unjust deeds, with the exception of Hamptonshire which he retained until he killed the alderman who had remained with him the longest. My translation; I hope better Old English scholars than I will forgive my mistakes)

During my fist year I ended up learning by heart a lot of the Old English I would have to translate in the exam, without really understanding the language and its grammar sufficiently. As a result of finding the linguistic aspect of study so hard, I never really applied myself to this subject; my only concern was passing Moderations at the end of my first year. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t carry on with Old English in my second and third years. I regret it. It was only when I went to Manchester (and chose to study Old English as part of my MA studies) that I realised what an opportunity I’d wasted and how much I had to catch up on. I didn’t make the most of the fact that I had experts teaching me and with hindsight I realise that I should have been far more proactive in asking for help and telling my tutors that I was struggling. Perhaps in the college environment where everyone seemed so confident and proficient, I was afraid of showing my weaknesses. I’m still not comfortable with that, although I am getting better at asking for help. I can only apologise to my wonderful tutors for not being a more model student.

It was when I started teaching Old English (in translation for the most part) that I came to appreciate how wonderful the literature of the early Middle Ages is. The stories are great and I realised that it wasn’t Old English that I didn’t like; it was the barrier of the language that made it unappealing to me. Left to discover the beauty of the poetry and the playfulness of the riddles for myself, I became determined to learn more of the language so that I didn’t always need to read in translation and so that I could better help my students to get to grips with what is, initially, a large culture shock. It’s a slow process, but I feel that I appreciate the literature as well as the language far more this way.  The studying I did as an undergraduate has sunk in at some level. There are things that I remember because I learned them by heart and that I now understand more fully having studied Middle English subsequently. I really do appreciate the fact that my students find Old and Middle English difficult and I see my own resistance in them – I’m not enjoying it because I can’t access what I’m meant to be exploring because the language is too hard.

It is with this in mind that I’m going to be using manuscript images for the workshop next week, assuming no prior knowledge and recognising that those barriers to exploring might be in place already. I’ve chosen a folio from the Shrewsbury Book (British Library Royal MS 15E vi), which dates from about 1445 and was produced at Rouen as a gift from John Talbot, 1st earl of Shrewsbury, to Margaret of Anjou on the occasion of her wedding to Henry VI of England. We’re going to be looking at the image of Talbot presenting the book to Margaret on folio 2v. We’ll start by considering in what ways this image speaks to us, noting down our first impressions of how it makes us feel and what we can tell about the book from this one page. Building on this, we’ll explore what we can infer from the image presented to us, and what questions it raises – what we want to know more about. The rest of the session will be about finding ways to answer these questions. I’m hoping that taking this approach will mean that the students feel able to connect with medieval texts as objects and to understand that much of what we do as researchers is about looking for answers to the questions that are important to us. Moreover, I want to students to recognise that they have much to contribute to these debates. I’ll let you know how it goes.