Recently we welcomed potential applicants to our online open day for Spanish and Portuguese. If you were unable to attend but would like to know more about studying either of these languages at the University of Oxford, we are delighted to share a playlist of videos featuring tutors and students talking about our undergraduate courses. You can view the videos on our YouTube channel here.
Seb Dows-Miller, an MSt student at Merton College, introduces some of the intriguing beasts he has encountered in the medieval Bestiary which is held by his College library.
When was the last time you tried to draw a lion? How did it go? It’s definitely not easy!
Now imagine you’re a medieval monk or nun, working in a dimly lit library with not much other than a candle to light up your work. You’ve been asked to draw pictures to accompany a bestiary, a medieval text that talks about the behaviours of different animals, many of which live in far-off lands or don’t exist at all.
You’ve never seen a lion, nor has anyone you’ve ever met, and the only clues you have about what they look like are drawings by other monks and nuns, who don’t really know what a lion looks like either. Do you think your drawing would be any good?
We actually have examples of drawings done in conditions like these. Manuscript 249 in the library of Merton College, written in a mixture of Latin and Anglo-Norman (a dialect of French that was spoken in England after 1066), contains one of only three surviving copies of a bestiary by the poet Phillippe de Thaon.
The manuscript has been at Merton since 1374, and in it there are close to 50 line drawings containing all sorts of animals.
The image below, for example, shows a lion hunting a zebra, and was almost certainly drawn by somebody who hadn’t seen either animal before, but it’s still pretty good!
Some of the drawings are less successful… The one below depicts the ‘cetus’, a mythical creature that has been written about since Classical times, generally assumed to be modelled on a whale. Clearly nobody had ever got close enough to realise whales don’t have scales!
Among the mythical beasts in the bestiary, we also find a ‘monocheros’ (unicorn). While we usually think of the unicorn as being very similar to a horse, according to Phillippe de Thaon and those who copied the text it was actually closer to a ‘buket’ (goat)!
What was the purpose of this text? Nowadays we have all sorts of books and TV programmes talking about the behaviour of animals as we understand it, and so in that sense the bestiary isn’t too different to the way most of us think about wild animals today.
Unlike our modern approach, however, medieval bestiaries are usually quite religious in flavour. They talk a lot about what the behaviour of animals apparently tells us about the teachings of religious texts such as the Bible. The community spirit and self-sacrifice of ants, for example, is said to tell us a lot about the way in which Christian society should be organised.
So, did the readers of our bestiary only want to get down to the Christian message of the text? We can’t be too sure, but it was almost certainly more complicated than that. Whatever the texts themselves say, people reading and copying bestiaries probably wanted to find out more about the natural world just as much as they wanted to hear any religious messages.
Another important question is: who read this text? We can be sure that once it had arrived at the college, Merton’s copy was read primarily by men who were members of the college, but was this always the case? The text is dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), wife of Henry II of England, and so there was at least one intended female reader!
The fact that this particular bestiary was written primarily in Anglo-Norman, rather than Latin, which is very unusual for this part of the Middle Ages, suggests that the text’s audience was probably quite broad, and may have included people who didn’t know how to read Latin. Just as we use books with pictures to teach children how to read, could bestiaries have been used to help teach medieval learners?
What’s going on here? The picture below shows an ibis eating (possibly) a snake, but the picture has been cut off at the bottom of the page. This probably doesn’t mean that the illustrator just ran out of space, but rather that someone later on, when putting a new binding on the manuscript, trimmed off the bottom of the page to make it fit.
Meanwhile, this poor onoscentaurs (centaur) has had the top of his head trimmed off! We see this a lot in medieval manuscripts, where later re-binders have cut off images or sometimes even text. The most recent re-binding of Merton MS 249 took place in the 17th century, so it could have happened then or even earlier.
This shows just how important it is to remember that manuscripts change over time. The manuscript didn’t stand still after its creation, with different generations of readers having different interpretations of what makes it valuable.
There’s so much more to discover in this manuscript, so why not have a look for yourself! The text is very difficult to read (although you might recognise certain words, even if you don’t speak French), but the pictures tell just as much of a story. You can also follow the misadventures of Merton’s beasts on Twitter: @MertonBeasts.
by Seb Dows-Miller
Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford.
The clock is ticking… The deadline for this year’s French and Spanish flash fiction competitions is 31 March 2021 so, if you are thinking of entering, now is a good time to start work on your story! The competition – to write a story of no more than 100 words in either French or Spanish – is open to students aged 11-18, with cash prizes up for grabs in different age categories. For full details about the competition check out this post.
Third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) has been sharing updates on her Year Abroad travels. Following on from her earlier post about her time in Munich, she is now in Paris.
Even before coming to Oxford, I knew I wanted to spend some time living in Paris, having caught glimpses of the city on family holidays and on a day trip during my French exchange. It’s potentially the least original of year abroad locations, but I really do think there’s a reason for that!
A lot of people come to Paris to do an internship during their year abroad, but I’d chosen to study for this semester, and was quite excited to get back into the academic world after having taken time off from studying in Germany. That’s one of the great things about the year abroad: it gives you time and flexibility to try out a few different things, and mix and match between your studies and the big scary world that comes after university.
Oxford has an exchange programme with La Sorbonne, and I was lucky enough to get a place to study there for the second semester of this academic year. Oxford aren’t very prescriptive about exactly what you have to study if that’s what you opt for on your year abroad, so as long as I do the right amount of credits, I’m pretty much free to choose whatever modules I like. I’ve stayed in my comfort zone so far, with modules from the department of ‘Littérature française et comparée’, but I also know people who’ve branched out into history courses, philosophy, and even Greek. I think I’ve managed to get a really good mix of modules that relate directly to some of the topics and texts I’ve covered in my course at Oxford, alongside some entirely new topics, and some language classes to keep that grammar ticking over.
I say I’ve stayed in my comfort zone, but even when studying a topic area that’s familiar to me, transitioning to a French university is far from simple! Academic systems are unique to each country, and I already feel like I’m beginning to get a flavour of what French university life is like and how it’s different to England, or at least Oxford, on the academic side of things. At the moment it’s harder to get an idea of what the social side of things is normally like, because there are far fewer social events on campus than there would be in ordinary circumstances. In this respect, though, I’m quite lucky that I’ve chosen to au pair alongside my studies, because it means that I have daily contact with a family, and a homely environment, where I have purpose and a little bit of my own space in the city, which might otherwise be a bit big and anonymous.
Living and spending time with a French family really gives you a sense of the difference between speaking French and becoming French. More so than when I was in Germany, I have the sense that I’m not just learning the language, but am also getting used to the French, or at least the Parisian, way of life: shopping at the local market, eating well, exploring the city at weekends, and, in a few weeks, heading off to the Alps for a winter break, courtesy of the family I’m staying with. Once the COVID situation starts to improve a little and things open up again, I think there will be even more opportunities to soak up the cultural aspects of Paris, its museums, restaurants and libraries, and I can’t wait to experience the city in summer.
It’s hard to capture in a blog post the excitement that comes when you set up your life in a new place for the next six months, knowing that this is the place you really want to be, and having a stretch of time to do and see everything you want to, make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, and work your way towards becoming, slowly, a little bit more French (or German, or Spanish, or Italian), as you get accustomed to a new way of life and find your place linguistically, intellectually and personally. But it’s definitely been a feeling I’ve experienced on my year abroad, and I hope you do too!
DPhil student Nupur Patel (Lincoln College) gives us a glimpse into her research on sixteenth-century French women’s writing, and reflects on her journey to postgraduate work in French.
Admittedly, when I first began my Bachelor’s degree as an undergraduate of French and History, I had no intentions of pursuing postgraduate study. As much as I loved my degree, I always thought it was a distant dream to join the table of scholars at the University, and I was yet to find my own specialised area of interest. My third year was a transformational moment; I began to delve into early modern women’s writing which lit a fire in me. For my undergraduate dissertation, I came across Marguerite de Navarre, who is sometimes called the ‘Mother of the Renaissance’ for her great influence during her lifetime, and beyond. As I become more acquainted with her literature, I decided to explore her role as a playwright and patroness. In the process of reading and writing, I came across other women writers and became fascinated by questions of women’s agency and experiences. This coincided with discussions about intersectional feminism, activist movements and the global Women’s Marches which were placed at the forefront of newspapers and TV screens. These events encouraged me to study a DPhil which looked more deeply into early modern women’s agency.
My research looks at responses to the concept of modesty in the works of four sixteenth-century French women’s writers. In the early modern period, modesty was fundamental to the ways in which women are perceived and understood in society. It was means of controlling women’s bodies and sexuality, and was intimately linked to other concepts of chastity, shame and honour. In my project, I look at four sixteenth century women writers – Marguerite de Navarre, Les Dames des Roches and Gabrielle de Coignard – all of whom lived in different areas in France and show that it was possible for writers to challenge, rethink and even completely overturn modesty’s place in early modern French society. In the world of literature, they use their texts as ways to respond to modesty in ways that give them agency and liberate other women from the oppressive term. It is an empowering means for women to reclaim their bodies and sexuality from men who seek to constrain them. An important example where this takes place is late sixteenth century Poitiers, where poet Catherine des Roches lived with her mother, Madeleine des Roches. Together, the pair were known as Les Dames des Roches, and they produced three works in their lifetime: Les Œuvres and Les Secondes Œuvres – which included poetry and prose – followed by Les Missives – the first private letters to be published by women in France.
Catherine’s life was particularly intriguing, for she veered away from gender expectations of the time. Instead of marrying and having children, she chose to live with her mother with the hopes of nurturing her great passion for learning and writing. Her mother encouraged her writing, which scholars such as Estienne Pasquier and Scévole de Sainte-Marthe wrote about with great admiration in their dedications. Such figures honoured both women as very talented writers and salon hostesses. Estienne Pasquier, especially, was very fond of Catherine and recalled to his friend, Pierre Pithou, one particular moment during a salon meeting in which a flea landed on Catherine’s bosom; this inspired great wonder in him, which resulted in the publication of La Puce de Madame des Roches, a collection of poems by Pasquier and other male poets who write about this story. These poems come in the form of different languages and reveal an attempt to turn Catherine into an object of male desire. Many of the poets, including Pasquier, are mesmerised by the sight of the male flea sucking blood from her breast. Instead of reflecting male desire, Catherine chooses to reject them in her own flea poem. In her striking account of the flea landing on her bosom, she decides to make the flea a female nymph who seeks refuge from a tyrannical male god. Catherine transforms her body, once a site of eroticism, into a place of shelter and honour; she liberates it from shame and desire and turns it into artistic inspiration for her poetry. Her poem is a striking example of how a woman writer can use her writing to challenge modesty and society’s conceptions of the female body; she, and others in my study, reveal moments of empowerment within the confines of patriarchal society.
Studying Catherine des Roches and the other women in my study has been a very rewarding experience, and a great reminder of the breadth of topics that can be studied in French literature. As I try to unearth moments of early modern women’s agency, I have colleagues who study medical literature, postcolonial texts, the depiction of disabilities, and dancing manuals. As my first undergraduate dissertation taught me, when studying languages, the possibilities at endless, whether, like me, you are looking at women’s writing in the sixteenth century, or at something completely different.
We’re delighted to be able to share news of our forthcoming Open Days for sixth-form students who may be interested in studying Modern Languages at Oxford. These would normally take place in Oxford but this year we’re running a series of online events sharing information about some of the many different languages we offer – potential applicants can join us from the comfort of their own home! There will be opportunities to chat to tutors and current undergraduates, as well as some events with live workshops and taster sessions.
The open day schedule for February and March 2021 is as follows:
Friday 26 February – Spanish and Portuguese
Saturday 27 February – German
Saturday 27 February – Russian and other Slavonic Languages
Saturday 13 March – Italian
In many of the courses we offer you can study a language from scratch, so please don’t be put off from attending if you aren’t studying any of these languages at A level!
Later in the year we’ll also be holding an online version of our Faculty open day, where you’ll also be able to learn about some of the other languages we offer. Keep an eye on this blog and on the ‘Open Days’ page on our website for updates.
Colleagues at the Oxford German Network have just launched Round 2 of this year’s Oxford German Olympiad; the competition features a choice of creative tasks aimed at school pupils in age groups ranging from Year 10 to Year 13.
Two of the new tasks are sponsored by the White Rose Project, which is investigating the story of the White Rose resistance group. The competition tasks focus on resistance member Sophie Scholl, who would have had her one hundredth birthday in 2021. The third task asks entrants to consider the parallels between the 1920s and 2020s.
There are cash prizes available for the winning entries. Full details of all Oxford German Olympiad competitions are available on the OGN’s website here.
Colleagues in the Faculty of Modern Languages are currently involved in a national project, Modern Languages Outreach and Engagement (MLOE) led by Dr. Jessica Goodman (St. Catherine’s College). As part of this project, universities all over the UK are hosting a series of free online events focusing on Modern Languages for school students and their teachers. The event led by the University of Oxford will take place on Thursday 18 February (5pm-6.30pm). Interactive sessions will give attendees an insight in what it means to study modern languages at university by introducing the kind of texts that students might study, focusing primarily on French and German materials. One session will ask how literature and science interact, using German texts about imagined adventures into outer space. Another will look at ghosts in literature, using examples from French. Whilst the sessions will use French and German materials, English translations will be provided, so you do not need to know either language already to take part. There will also be the opportunity to find out from current Oxford students what it is like to study Modern Languages here. The sessions hosted by Oxford are primarily designed for students studying for A Levels and who are taking Modern Languages, but any students who are interested in Modern Languages are welcome to attend.
You can find further details about these events, including information about how to book, here.
Edit (2 February 2021): the booking link is now open for the Oxford event on 18 February. Participants can sign up here.
On Tuesday 12 January 2021 the Faculty hosted our first virtual literature masterclass for sixth-form students. The event usually takes place in Oxford each January but, as with most things this academic year, it has been necessary to move it online. We were joined by around 80 Year 12 and 13 students from nine different schools; colleagues led eleven parallel workshop sessions, each focusing on a different set text from the French, Spanish, or German A level curriculum. Participants were able to get a flavour of how tutorial teaching works, and to get to grips with some in-depth literary analysis. The virtual format enables us to broaden our geographical reach, and we hope to be able to offer similar sessions to more schools over the course of the year.
We’ve also begun producing a series of short videos focusing on particular literary techniques. You can find these over on our YouTube channel, on the playlist titled ‘Literary Masterclass for Sixth-Formers’. To date we have videos for French on ‘Perspective’, ‘Theatricality’, ‘Time and Tense’, and ‘Lexis and Imagery’, and a video for German on ‘Perspective’. Over time we hope to add more to the collection, with videos for Spanish learners as well as more for those studying German. Do subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive a notification when we upload a new video!
Episode 7 of the Oxford Spanish Literature Podcast is now available to listen to here. This episode features Daniela Omlor, Associate Professor in Modern Spanish Literature, talking about the novel Nada, by Carmen Laforet.
You can listen to other episodes in the podcast series here.
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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