Deborah McGrady / French

Medieval Culture Today: An Exploration of Medieval Artifacts in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland.

Over the course of my first year at the University of Virginia (2007 – 2008), I had the wonderful opportunity to meet a number of undergraduates interested in medieval topics in my two undergraduate courses “Medieval and Sixteenth Century Texts” (FREN 341, Fall 07) and “Sexuality and Identity: The Medieval Perspective” (FREN 445, Spring 08). In Spring 09, I am scheduled to offer another undergraduate medieval course in translation on “Joan of Arc across the Ages.” The course begins with four weeks that focus on Joan of Arc in her medieval context, but from there, I plan to examine with students Joan’s legacy over the centuries. Some of the topics to be addressed include Joan’s role in theatre from Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw, Joan in Opera, and Joan in politics in France, America, and Japan. The intention of the course, beyond introducing students to this extraordinary mythic figure, is to open students’ eyes to the important role that medieval culture plays throughout history in helping societies, countries, and individuals construct identity. On a more basic but no less valuable level, I seek to communicate to students the continued currency that the medieval period holds in today’s society.

While my course offerings provide me with a rich forum for introducing students to the medieval period and its impact on modern society, I recognize the limitations of teaching the medieval period within the constraints of the classroom.

If given the opportunity to serve as a Mead Honored Professor, I would take advantage of the situation and funding to open students’ eyes to the material evidence of the medieval world and, hopefully, to the value and function that medieval artifacts from gothic-inspired churches to museum collections of armor and manuscripts play in contemporary American society.

I envision three different excursions to occur over the course of the academic year of 2008 – 09 that would introduce students in my Joan of Arc class to medieval culture as represented in Baltimore, MD; Staunton, VA; and funding permitting, Washington, D.C.

1. We would begin with a field trip to Baltimore, MD that would center on a visit to the Walters Art Gallery, where there is one of the richest collections in America of medieval armor as well as an extraordinary manuscript collection. I have participated in several projects with the head curator of Rare Books at the Walters and am confident that I would be able to arrange a private viewing of manuscripts for the students. Among the manuscripts available at the Walters, there are a number of works that my students from this year have studied, including the Romance of the Rose and writings by the fifteenth-century woman writer, Christine de Pizan (Joan’s contemporary and the first poet to write on Joan of Arc). The museum’s medieval artifact collection would provide students the rare opportunity to see in person examples of armor, tapestries, jewelry and quotidian artifacts that I am certain would bring Joan into greater focus. There is nothing more powerful than seeing the type of armor that Joan would have actually been required to wear in her position as general of the Royal French army.

2. Our second excursion would take advantage of the Blackfriar’s Playhouse in Staunton, VA, where they will perform during their winter season, Henry IV, Part I in which Joan of Arc plays a leading role. Students will read this play in class, but nothing can compare to seeing the piece performed live. I plan to organize our excursion around a special session following the play with actors and director so that students will have an opportunity to ask questions directly to them regarding the play and choices in performance.

3. Finally, if funding permits (or if students are enthusiastic and willing to pay their way), a final visit to Washington, D.C. will provide students the opportunity to explore the importance of medieval culture in developing the country’s identity.  The visit would center on the National Gallery of Art and the important collection of medieval sculptures and paintings. This museum visit would be enhanced by a walking tour of the city that would explore some of the medieval architecture on display, in particular the National Cathedral and its medieval-inspired gardens.

If given the opportunity to follow Professor Mead’s “boots,” I believe that extending my Joan of Arc course beyond the traditional classroom will help students see with new eyes the role medieval culture plays in contemporary society, the pivotal role played by Joan across the ages, not to mention the extraordinary position she played in her own society, but most importantly, it will give me an opportunity to share with students outside the classroom my passion and to connect with them on a more personal level.