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Medieval and Renaissance Studies


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What to Expect

The field of medieval studies is as broad and as expansive as the time period it studies. After all, a lot happened in Europe between 500 and 1500.

Just ask Emily Reiner. When she started her master's degree in medieval studies, she had a choice of 75 different classes. The only class that she absolutely had to take was about a language nobody speaks anymore -- Latin.

That's because a lot of the documents from the medieval period are in Latin. It was the language of the clergy. And with some exceptions, its members were the only people who knew how to read and write.

Latin was also the language of the Roman Empire. Its texts had a huge impact on medieval writers.

"No matter what time period you are working in, you are going to run into Latin," says Reiner. "And you have to know it. You have to be able to read primary sources."

Reiner says she spent 15 hours outside each class learning its vocabulary and multiple ways of conjugating verbs. She and her classmates even played Scrabble in Latin.

Miriam Kriss also spent a lot of time learning Latin at New York University. One common assignment was to translate passages. "We would do the translations and then we would go over the translation as a class," she says.

You may also have to learn older versions of today's languages. Reiner, for instance, specialized in Middle English -- the language of Chaucer. He wrote the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is on the same level as Shakespeare in importance.

"We would read Middle English in front of the class," she recalls. "It was a very small class, though. It was only 10 people -- so not too embarrassing if you didn't do it right."

Expect to do a lot of reading and writing. That means spending a lot of time in libraries. You may also spend a lot of time in museums, studying medieval art and artifacts up close.

Kriss says a postgraduate degree will make you more employable. "I wouldn't try to do anything with a BA [bachelor of arts] in medieval or Renaissance studies."

Still, the research and writing skills you gain can be of immense value in any career. And studying the course of European civilization over a thousand years helps us to learn more about us today.

"Because medieval studies is so interdisciplinary -- you end up doing languages, and history and literature if you want -- you get a really good grounding in what has happened in the past. And it is actually quite a good indication of what could happen in the future," says Reiner.


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