Poetry Gets Medieval
Trinity students study neglected Latin poems
Friday, December 1, 2017
Andrew Kraebel sits between two students as they translate the poems on their laptops

In the middle of bustling cities across Europe, cells built onto the sides of churches once contained unlikely inmates. Willing ones. 

Beginning in the Middle Ages, small cell-like rooms with three windows were built onto churches for religious persons who had chosen a life of solitude and prayer. Women who selected this life were known as anchoresses and spent the remainder of their lives in these confines. Enclosure involved a special ceremony, overseen by a bishop, which included a unique liturgy.

In the spring of 2017, Luke Ayers ’19 and Victoria Bahr ’19 studied the text of this liturgy in a Trinity special topics course in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Ayers, Bahr, and their classmates were given semester-long projects to identify a piece of Medieval Latin literature that had previously never been translated into English. Led by English professor Andrew Kraebel, the class produced annotated translations of 12th-century Latin poetry and texts, including the anchoress liturgy.

“I think people have this picture of the Middle Ages as intellectually backward, but in reality there was a lot of important literature and poetry being made,” says Ayers, an economics major from Austin. “Translating this liturgy, there was a sense of accomplishment because we were working on something original, a product that hadn’t been touched before. This was the first time this liturgy had been written in English.”

Kraebel’s students used their research and upper-division Latin skills to translate. Many students, like Ayers, were not Latin majors, but shared a common interest in the language and time period. Students majoring in history, religion, classical studies, English, and other fields came together in their shared passion for the Middle Ages.

After spending the majority of the course studying poetry, ranging from a few stanzas to massive epics, the students dedicated April and May to their projects. In addition to the anchoress liturgy, students translated a poem about life after the fall of ancient Rome and an encyclopedic text about the natural world, particularly the reptiles—
and dragons!—that may or may not have lived.

“These team projects allowed students to produce material that is new,” Kraebel says. “I think of this kind of translation as an original contribution to humanities research. The students have made these texts available to more people through translation, and by annotating them they draw the reader’s attention to particular words to talk about their significance or how they have been interpreted.”

As students got started, Kraebel helped identify places to find material and guided students through particularly difficult passages or words. Kraebel, who specializes in the history of literary criticism in the Middle Ages, says research opportunities like these projects are rare for undergraduate students. As an undergraduate, Kraebel himself benefited from the mentorship of a professor who passed on a shared love for Medieval Latin.

At a classroom translating session in mid-April, Kraebel swiveled adeptly on his rolling chair between groups of students hard at work, peering low over massive volumes and sounding out Latin phrases and English translations.

Exchanging jokes with the students, Kraebel conveyed a love for the material through animated chatter and an easy laugh.

He appreciates that students are adding to the small yet existing body of scholarship on medieval Latin literature.

“Here are pieces of Latin that, if they were part of the scholarly conversation, could change it,” Kraebel says. “Part of what I explore is the different ways that undergraduates can make original research contributions, where the product is not always an essay, but things like translations and editions that represent real scholarly achievement.”

This idea is not lost on Ayers, who says that Medieval Latin is one “of the few areas where you can really do a lot of original work” and “make a big impact on the field.”

He says that a preference prevails for classical Latin, where a lot of translation already exists. The opportunity, he notes, lies in the medieval period.

“A lot of the interesting things that were going on in the Middle Ages aren’t really talked about unless you take the time to study that particular period,” Ayers says. “For Latin in general, I have
found that it is really helpful with my writing and has made me a lot more conscious of grammar and sentence structure.”

Ayers began taking Latin in high school and continued it at Trinity to satisfy the University’s language requirement. Yet it wasn’t until his Intermediate I class, where he studied Cicero, that it truly began to “click.”

After finishing this project, Ayers feels as though he has gone from “standing on the shoulders of giants”—a metaphor coined in the 12th century—to carving his own special place in the discipline.

“I am standing on a really firm, deep foundation,” Ayers says. “We did pull a lot of our ideas and resources from scholarship that had already been done, but the actual liturgy that we translated, that was brand new.”

Carlos Anchondo '14 is an oil and gas reporter for E&E News, based in Washington D.C. A communication and international studies major at Trinity, he received his master's degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

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