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'New Light on the Old World: The Middle Ages at Cornell'

Cornell's Graduate Program in Medieval Studies appoints no faculty of its own. Yet faculty from 13 departments within the College of Arts and Sciences choose, out of love, to devote their time and energy to the program and its extremely diverse and dedicated group of students.

Since the late Robert Kaske founded the Medieval Studies Program some 30 years ago, Cornell's presence in the field -- and its phalanx of students at the International Conference on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, the world's largest such gathering -- has been formidable. Many of the program's faculty and almost all of its students take to the road in carpools and a van each May to make the annual pilgrimage, masterminded by English Professor Thomas D. Hill.

Cornell's faculty, which has included some of the world's leading medievalists, is particularly strong in Old and Middle English literature; medieval history, law, and political thought; and medieval philosophy.

And Cornell medievalists have easy access to the medieval holdings in the Cornell University Library, which are among the best in North America and include Icelandic, Dante and witchcraft collections and over 50 illuminated medieval manuscripts.

"We aspire to be the best medieval studies program in the United States," said Danuta Shanzer, professor of classics and director of the Medieval Studies Program, "to help our students finish in a timely fashion and to see to it that they find employment. The atmosphere of enthusiastic friendly support has always been there; so, too, the hard-nosed scholarship, up-to-date literary theory and as much imagination as academics can muster."

Recognizing that Cornell's Medieval Studies Program had both a reputation for excellence and potential for improvement and that it was operating on a shoestring budget, the Mellon Foundation targeted the program for generous fellowship support and seminar funding in 1993.

"We've always enjoyed batting around ideas, texts and artifacts over food and drink," Shanzer said, "but the new monthly Mellon seminars provide a formal venue."

While many peer institutions have medieval studies programs, few accept students and offer degrees. Cornell's Ph.D. in medieval studies is demanding: students study two different disciplines from among literature, history, linguistics, philosophy, music, archaeology and art history; or, as a minimum, two entirely separate literatures.

Graduate student Vicki Szabo is pursuing archaeology and history for her dissertation, which concerns the use of whalebones in early medieval Britain. She grew interested in this topic during her first year at Cornell, when she discovered in Olin Library that women in medieval Britain used whalebones as weaving tools, and that these tools were so valued that they were buried with their owners.

"I had never heard archaeologists or historians talk about the use of whale materials during this period, and I was fascinated," said Szabo, who subsequently visited remote archaeological sites in Scotland, as well as the British Museum in London -- where she recently gave a paper on the topic.

Another student, Elisa Mangina (who can read 14 medieval languages), is studying literature and linguistics and is focusing her research on sacred versus secular time in the late Middle Ages. Nils Nadeau, whose disciplines are music and anthropology, came to Cornell to study pre-Gregorian chants and their importance in ritual with Professor Don M. Randel, a renowned medieval musicologist and Cornell's provost.

The intellectual range and caliber of Cornell's students were on display one recent Saturday at the seventh Medieval Studies Student Colloquium in the A.D. White House on campus. Entirely student-run, the Feb. 8 program included 12 student presentations under the headings of "Sacred vs. Secular: Uses of Power in Medieval Germany," "(Re)Presenting Anglo-Saxon England," "Philosophy and Theology in the 13th Century," "Modes of Piety in the Late Middle Ages" and "In Principio Erat Verbum: Creating With Words."

Speakers and their topics included Kara Doyle, (on the Old English poem "The Seafarer"), Sean Eisen Murphy (Jews in 12th-century theology), Inmaculada Senra-Silva, visiting this year from the University of Seville, Spain (runes and Germanic philology), and Jennifer Welsh (church lands in medieval Bavaria).

Doyle, who chaired this year's colloquium, said of the gathering, "It's the main event on campus that brings together medievalists from across the disciplines and a great forum for learning to present our ideas -- not to mention putting together a conference."

Several students said they were grateful for this "dry run" among friends for the challenge of Kalamazoo, where they will present the same papers in May before a much larger audience.

Beyond the student colloquium, Cornellians can explore the life and lore of the Middle Ages through an undergraduate medieval society, Quodlibet, which sponsors renowned visiting lecturers; an annual poetry reading at Christmastime, where students and faculty sing, read and recite in a multitude of medieval tongues; and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which includes several pieces of medieval art in its permanent collection that are available for student research. In addition, students in Professor Robert Farrell's class "Early Medieval Architecture and Literature" currently are studying medieval artifacts on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Johnson Museum.

These and other Cornell medieval events are listed in "Cornucopia," a new Web site, at . The site's faculty listings include links to medieval texts and information from all over the world.

Asked how they came to study the Middle Ages, Cornell students give diverse responses: Szabo pointed to her curiosity about "the reality of the so-called 'Dark Ages,'" while Doyle cited Dante's Divine Comedy and Mangina, "a love of dead languages."

Shanzer put it this way: "We work hard, just like any other program or department, but we also have a great deal of fun bridging the gap between the thing -- be it an enigmatic verse, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Lindesfarne Gospels, a sequence of musical notes -- and the world in which it once made perfect sense. That's why we're here."

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