My story of becoming interested in medieval English history may not be unique: I blame it all on my mother and her copy of Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, which tells the love story of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford. (Most people who have known me for a while know that I am still a self-confessed John of Gaunt fangirl, more on that later.) It fired my imagination with its descriptions of fourteenth-century life and I began working my way through the English history section of my local public library and made it through just about the entire Dewey Decimal 942 section and as much of the 920s as interested me. I fell whole-heartedly in love with medieval England and spent my money on scholarly biographies and works of history.
When I went to college, however, I had no idea that you could turn a love of reading fiction and history into a career outside of publishing, so I enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in a course focusing on professional writing and editing. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I met one of the people who changed my life: Dr. Mark Allen, my mentor. My first college-level exposure to medieval literature came in the form of what those of us who met (and became close friends) in that class affectionately refer to the “King Allen” class. It was a course on Arthurian literature which spanned the first brief mentions of Arthur in the Welsh Gododdin up to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was an eye-opening experience, not least because a good friend persuaded Dr. Allen to give us weekly hour-long sessions in medieval studies, which continued for me for two years until I graduated.
I remember being generally quiet in these sessions to begin with — I thought Dr. Allen was (and is) the bees knees and it took me a long time to get over being intimidated by him. I do remember the first time I corrected him: we were discussing the Morte Darthur and Thomas Malory and he had incorrectly drawn a genealogy of the major houses of the Wars of the Roses. After that it wasn’t long before we were discussing Chaucer and Dr. Allen found out just how much I knew about my beloved John of Gaunt and the fourteenth century.
These sessions introduced me to palaeography and codicology. One of my favorite things we did was transcribe from facsimile and years later when I went to Oxford, I thanked Dr. Allen every time I had a transcription class with Dr. Ralph Hanna because I rarely had much trouble.
What started as an informal tutoring on medieval studies eventually made me realize that medieval literature was It for me. It was What I Wanted To Do When I Grew Up, and I took it very seriously. As a student in the UTSA Honors College, I had the option of writing a senior honors thesis and in the fall semester of 2005 I asked Dr. Allen to be my advisor. I didn’t have a topic, but I knew I wanted to do something medieval. Over the next year, Dr. Allen did a lot of hand-holding for me as I flailed about in the great sea of medieval studies and tried to find my own niche and voice. Eventually I wrote about medieval English literary patronage but it was only after Dr. Allen encouraged me to write about what I knew and loved that I decided to write about John of Gaunt. I still remember very clearly the night I “cracked” the problems I was having with my thesis and was able to perfectly articulate my theory. Which is odd, considering my moment of inspiration came after an evening at the Flying Saucer and a lot of beer.
It was all downhill from there. Thanks to Dr. Allen’s encouragement, I became a fully paid up medievalist and have enjoyed continued throwing myself headlong into books of medieval history and literature ever since. Some day I hope to conserve medieval manuscripts and study them to discover the unique histories of these beautiful codices — but I’ll leave it to other medievalists to interpret what I preserve.
Next time: how I went from collecting old books to studying archives and preservation.