Meeting the Medievalist
The past still thrums in Associate Professor of English Damian Fleming’s office.
Styling himself as a medievalist, Fleming scrutinizes the looping serifs of Old English imprinted on yellowed parchment encased between leather-bound sleeves. Translation is a meticulous process, and every year the bygone days of ancient England slip further into the fog of antiquity.
But ancestries still echo in the brown ink, and Fleming’s pursuit is relentless.
The Cascades of Language
Fleming’s research primarily focuses on the literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, dating from approximately 700 to 1100 A.D.
These texts are written in either Old English, the precursor to our modern dialect, or in Latin, the official language of the Catholic Church at the time. But scholars will note that religious texts, including the Bible, were originally written in Hebrew.
That’s where Fleming’s research comes into play: he wants to better understand how medieval scholars interpreted the translations of these texts from the original Hebrew—especially in light of the fact that Anglo-Saxon England was not home to a Jewish population, and very few could actually read Hebrew.
Everything medieval religious scholars knew about Hebrew and Judaism came directly from these texts—texts that were written in a language most could not understand.
See the conundrum?
An Opportunity to Touch History
As part of his research, Fleming looks at original manuscripts from the middle ages—thousand-year-old tomes, many of which have never been fully edited or translated.
Fleming makes frequent trips to England to walk the stacks and trusts of its oldest libraries, including Oxford University and the British Library in London, to reach out and touch the withered pages directly.
During his visits, Fleming works to translate these ancient texts, scouring them for evidence of interactions between medieval scholars and one of the world’s oldest languages.
Finding a connection could help modern day language and religious scholars better understand the very roots of their field.
Fleming readily admits that his classes are difficult—learning to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English or Beowulf in Old English is, of course, no simple feat.
The process is slow going and not immediately rewarding.
But the enthusiasm Fleming brings to his classroom inspires his students to work hard, do their best, and earn their mantle as fellow scholars and colleagues. His students come away from his courses with a hard-won sense of accomplishment and pride in their ability to participate in academic circles as equals.
Much like the echoes of the past still housed in the volumes beneath Oxford University, these feats of scholarly achievement make a lasting impression on Fleming’s students.
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