The “Grad School Thing” in Medieval Studies

By Maude Vachon-Roy

January 25, 2016

“So what’s that research going to do for us anyway?”

Those were my grandmother’s words when I visited her early January last year.

I had not flown back to Québec to see my family in about two years.  They all seemed to have saved some legitimate questions for me while I was completing my undergraduate studies at SFU in both English and French.  My grandmother was particularly curious as to why I was deciding to do “the grad school thing” in English literature.  She is a painter, a writer, a pianist, and a life-long advocate for female presence in the arts and humanities, so I figured that a part of her reaction originated from the fact that I was not going to pursue my studies in French—my first language, my L1, my mother tongue, my native speech, my vernacular.

I was wrong.  I realize that now.

“During my Master’s project, I intend to assess the relevance of the Middle French lyrics of “CH” as an intrinsic part of Chaucer’s multilingual oeuvre.”

Those were my words on my “grad school thing” application when I submitted it late January last year—after I tried to convince my grandmother (and myself?) that I wanted to find out more about the presence of French in fourteenth-century England.

I still do not truly know what they mean.  I want to figure out all of the Middle French puns written by Chaucer.  I want to study Middle English literature that revels in making inappropriate jokes while trying to reveal the ultimate way of reaching divine salvation.  I want to feel the insecurities of European societies after the Black Death.  I want to be enlightened by the texts of men and women who chose to permanently wall themselves into tiny cells to consecrate their lives to prayer.  I want to read obscure Anglo-Saxon poems that depict Christ as a warrior figure who busts open the gates of hell to save all of the souls trapped in there.  Primarily, I want to study medieval literature because it is funny, serious, obscene, unexpected, contemporary, ancient, and seemingly unattainable.

Just like any other type of literature from any other period.  I realize that now.

“Why do you like this stuff anyway?”

Those were my friends’ words when I told them about my first week of graduate school last September—after I tried to shamelessly convert them to the field of medieval studies.

The truth is I was not really familiar with “this stuff” until I took a couple of courses here at SFU.  I fell in love with Chaucer and his contemporaries in fall 2013.  Beowulf seduced me even more when he fought a dragon in spring 2014.  After a year-and-a-half hiatus, I now find myself getting sucked into Boccaccio and the Pearl-poet—the latter does not even have a name and we know nothing about him.  Medieval literature is messy and dirty, and it refuses to be pinned down by our interpretations.  It puzzles scholars around the world specifically because we barely have any tangible documents that can confirm our suspicions about the lives of poets, scribes, monks, and kings from that period.  If we like to think that we got The Canterbury Tales covered after centuries of scholarship, we are always thrown back into the dark when we notice that a specific word has five different meanings in other vernaculars.

And it feels good not to be done yet.

“So what’s that research going to do for us anyway?”

Those were my parents’ words when I spoke to them over Skype last week.

Mom, dad, I do not know.  But it feels good to travel back in time every day.

Maude Vachon-Roy specializes on the intersection of French and English literary works of the fourteenth century in England. Particularly, she is interested in the relationship between the different vernaculars (French, English, and Latin) and registers (courtly, satirical, popular, etc) used in post-plague literature and their multiple implications, be they political, social, or other. During her MA, she will be focusing on the anonymous lyrics of "CH" from the MS French 15 (Penn) and their possible affiliation with Chaucer.