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Medieval literature speaks to 21st-century students

December 21, 2011

Even the best of English majors – let alone Bio, Theatre and Spanish majors – don’t exactly look forward to medieval literature. But that’s about to change if the dozen freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors just finishing professor Corey Wronski-Mayersak’s “Medieval Visions and Visionaries” class have their way.

“This class completely changed my perspective about the medieval era,” says junior Kyla Greenhorn, an English major with a Religious Studies minor from Hagerstown, Md., who signed up for the class on the advice of her advisor.  “It was fascinating to read and understand what people, especially women, in medieval times thought about and wrote about.”

The course was offered as a special topics course in British literature for the first time this fall – and not coincidentally was among the first courses taught at McDaniel by the college’s new medieval scholar, Wronski-Mayersak.

Believing that students best understand a topic when they not only talk and write about it but when they also manipulate the information, the first-year professor tasked her students with a final project that asked them to keep the spirit of the medieval text yet put it into a contemporary creative form that would speak to 21st-century audiences.

They did just that. One group produced a children’s book, complete with 20 illustrations, of the famed Irish folk tale, “The Voyage of St. Brendan.” Another turned Ovid’s tale of the lovers Ceyx and Alcyone from his “Metamorphoses” into an imaginary romance novel and created a poster for its film adaptation, “Alcyone’s Vision,” casting Kate Winslet as Alcyone and Hugh Jackman as Ceyx. Other texts were aired in an historical love triangle on a Facebook page and a blog of three medieval women (one real, two fictional).

“Most students are surprised by the rigor of medieval thinking,” Wronski-Mayersak says, explaining that common perception is that there was little cultural production and total church control of thought during the Middle Ages, a period from the fifth through the 15th centuries. “Medieval women writers were seriously grappling with their faith, truth, philosophical and theological issues.

“They used writing to give shape to their spirituality, and creative forms to give voice to their thoughts.”

Wronski-Mayersak asked her class to do the same in their final projects and in their essays, one of which was to write a dream vision, a genre popular in medieval times that features a troubled dreamer who eventually falls asleep and is guided to some greater insight often by an oracular or allegorical character such as “Lady Holy Church” or “Lady Reason.”

Senior Sarah Miller, who describes herself as a secular Jewish student, says she came to the class with an outsider’s perspective.

“I was forced to re-evaluate what it meant to be one of those people,” says Miller, an English and Psychology double major from Baltimore. “I found the texts to be layered and rich – fun to get a taste of – while discovering that human nature hasn’t changed.”

The class literally changed sophomore Zach Brown’s direction – the English major from Towson, Md., plans to design an interdisciplinary major in Medieval Studies.

“This class is the inspiration for a self-designed major,” Brown says. “I like to take an interdisciplinary approach to learning and Medieval Studies includes art, history, literature, theology. It will give me a well-rounded base for understanding cultures and help me find my voice.

“You could say I’m eclectic in my studies.”