Hearing the Overtones: One Mentor's View of Graduate Student Research
Mary Flowers Braswell
Professor of English
The ability to hear the overtones in a document—not only what it says to us but what additional meanings its original readers found in it—is indispensable.
Richard D. Altick
The UAB Graduate Student Newsletter resonates with voices of students stung by the “research bug.” Not content with confining their studies to the materials found in UAB’s libraries, these exceptional individuals have moved “outside the box,” trading cozy surroundings for less adequate ones and abandoning familiar research methods in favor of the arcane and novel for which they have generally not been prepared. Supported by Dean Bryan Noe and his staff, those students have traveled outside Birmingham, outside Alabama, and even outside the U. S. in pursuit of their research goals, gaining insights that will impact their work forever. But it is not only the students who benefit; stimulated as well are those fortunate faculty who mentor these students, digging deep into their own arcane knowledge base to forge connections and to teach on a level that they rarely can take time to do.
During the Summer of 2008, I was privileged to instruct two graduate students from the English Department to appreciate the Middle Ages close up. I am always aware in my classes of the remoteness of the “Dark Ages” and I involve my students in the Birmingham Museum’s Kress collection and the medieval manuscripts at the Reynolds Library. One class, using specially-prepared goatskin and turkey quills recreated medieval manuscript pages in Latin and decorated them with images and gold leaf. We study the old script and students learn to transcribe a page or two from the 1402 Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript. Because of time restraints, we can generally stop there. But Patricia Rippetoe’s interest in a unique copy of a penitential manual, the fourteenth-century Lay Folks Mass Book, housed in the British Library Reading room, called for that “more” that my classes miss. Pat, a psychologist and English graduate student, felt a strange familiarity in the examination of the conscience by the medieval Catholic priest. She noted that
This monumental sort of consciousness-shift from
self-blindness to penitential exploration of one’s
unique failings, of one’s theories for his or her
behavior patterns, and of one’s insights into the
consequences of flawed actions was not seen again
until Freud postulated a vast new human realm—the
dark, conflicted, and sometimes shameful,
In furthering her investigation, she chose to examine the earliest text of the Lay Folks Mass Book in a search for scribal inscriptions. Problems immediately arose. The only extant copy of the manuscript is housed in the British Library Reading Room; it is available only to scholars; and it can only be seen by invitation. A quick course in writing to archives and archivists and a supporting letter from me alleviated these problems, but others were not so easy to solve. Although Pat could read Middle English from her exposure to printed texts in my classes, she would be required to read the handwriting of a fourteenth-century scribe, copying a northern dialect he probably didn’t know on pages filled with wormholes. A different experience entirely. Reading the original manuscript required a trip to England, special permission into the library’s inner sanctum, and a knowledge of Bastard Secretary Hand, a script containing strange characters and numerous scribal abbreviations. Because I, myself, was presenting a paper in Wales, I could segue to London and supervise her work. It was an exciting prospect.
To ready Pat for a trip to England (funds were donated by the Graduate School and matched by the English Department), we headed to the medieval manuscripts collection in the Reynold’s Library where she could experience the “overtones” of the materials she wanted to work.
Pat prepared like a trouper. She assimilated the printed edition of the Instructions in Sterne Library and got set for unexpected variations and additions to the original. Together we studied English Court Hands and the Dizionario di Abbreviature latine et italiane, and I waded through my paleography notes from Columbia. What fun! The librarians at the Reynolds gave us special instructions on the care and handling of old manuscripts, and we even practiced sniffing the peculiar moldy smell of the vellum to determine if we would need to wear masks while in the BL. (Dust from such books can cause “Librarian’s Lung,” an unpleasant respiratory ailment.) Such ardent preparation was rewarded. In the British Library the manuscript awaited Pat in its special wrapper. She was assigned
a seat at one of the reading room desks that contained a foam-covered book rest on which [she] was to place the book and the accompanying “snake”—a silk-covered string of leaden beads used to hold open the document.
After some time leafing through the manuscript, she noticed that “the unedited, unpunctuated, un-paginated became more intelligible and that the idiosyncrasies in scribal spelling, spacing, and orthography could actually be overcome.” Soon she was reading through the text, using its regular meter and the aa/bb rimes to help her cast the lines. Having learned how to contact an archivist, request a document, treat it respectfully, and read an original text, this student was ready to tackle her larger project.
Anne Markham Bailey, recipient of the Ireland Travel Prize, with an MFA in Book Arts from UT, traveled another route. In my Medieval culture class, we studied the Ancrene Rule, a conduct book for three sister anchoresses (a female hermit or holy virgin) and examined images of architectural ruins from the anchor cells, structures physically attached to churches. Little did I know that she would soon teach me about those ancient structures in situ from East Anglia and Surrey. Anne, an aspiring medievalist/creative writing student (Professor Bob Collins) embarked on a series of related poems “where the fictional voice of the anchoress is combined with accurate research.”
I am interested in the anchoress as a model of woman making choices for herself, choosing to leave quotidian life in order to pursue a committed and solitary spiritual path. Also might add that anchoresses differ from nuns in that they were solitary urban recluses who often became powerful mentors in spiritual and practical matters for the people in their church communities
Anne observed that
Several challenges faced me. The history of the anchoress is mostly unknown. There are very few manuscripts recording her own voice. There are none that record her daily life in her own voice. Much scholarship exists stemming from conduct books written by male guides, but in order to write the poems, I had to reach for the existing roots of the anchoress’s personal experience.
There were no articles or legal documents to help her, and as in the case with Pat, Anne flew to England to become her own expert.
Like Pat, Anne could not simply “appear.” So we worked on contacting priests and small town librarians in the area to make certain that what she wanted to see was actually there and that individuals were not “on holiday.” She asked about any extant documents relating to individuals who had once inhabited the cells, for any relics and physical remains. Anne e-mailed from the Willingham Church in Cambridgeshire about seeing a “rare wall painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary and some of the old Saxon artifacts.” I wanted very much to be there myself and wished that I could do more than write encouragement and study tips. She continued:
I spent time in the anchor hold and I asked Jon [Edney—a church member who became her guide] if anyone had searched the county archives for notations on the anchoresses in Willingham and he said he didn’t think so, and that if I were interested in doing so he would greatly appreciate it and would e-mail me the name of the Cambridgeshire archivist to contact.
She wrote again from Norwich:
I went down to St Julian’s [the church of noted anchoress Julian of Norwich]. It has been mostly rebuilt since it was hit by the Gremans in WW2. And the anchor hold was pulled down in the Reformation. Still, they do believe that the church was where Julian spent her years as an anchoress, though not where she had her visions. . . . I like the hotel well enough. But it could be a hell hole and I wouldn’t complain!
“Anne,” I wrote back, “you have been privileged to tap into the secret world of the scholar. Few are able to do so. Relish every minute!” She had hoped to “deepen her lifelong work as a poet.” Did she hear the “overtones”? I strongly believe she did.
The task of one who lives in another age and wants to appreciate a work correctly, consists precisely in rediscovering the varied information and complexes of ideas which the author assumed to be the natural property of his audience.
Jerome J. McGann