Tales From a Sabbatical: A Professor`s Trek into Medieval Times

Distinguished Professor Martha Driver, PhD

— Distinguished Professor Martha Driver, PhD

Just what do professors do on sabbatical? Research? Write a book? Publish an article? Attend a conference? Perhaps catch a movie or read a book? Or — dare we say — relax? For Distinguished Professor of English Martha Driver, PhD, it’s almost all of the above.

Keenly interested in the Middle Ages, Dr. Driver earned a distinguished professor designation for her scholarly work in this field. It is a passion that has resulted in a life’s body of work, including the publication of more than 45 articles and essays about medieval books and manuscripts; three books; and co-founding, with Sarah Horrall, the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History. Dr. Driver is well-known on and off campus for creative ways of making the past relevant to the present.

I sat down with her to find out what sabbatical tales she had to tell and why there is a continuing fascination with the Middle Ages.

Q. What do professors do while on sabbatical?

A. “Ideally, it’s to conduct new research. But I’m also glad to catch up on projects that I promised to do and could not quite finish during term time and summers. At the beginning, there seems to be plenty of time to finish projects and to start new ones, but there’s really not that much time.”

Q. Did you accomplish what you set out to accomplish while on sabbatical?  What was your main goal?

A. “No, one never does (or at least I don’t). While I did publish articles and a book and edit a journal and give lectures at a number of conferences, I am still at work on the books I hoped to complete.”

Q. What books are you working on?

A. “Pace English professor Sid Ray and I are co-editing another collection tentatively titled Medieval Shakespeare in Performance for McFarland, and we hope to have that manuscript to the publisher by the end of this term. I also expect to be working on Warriors to Midwives: Medieval Women at Work for Praeger Press intermittently this term, focusing more fully on that project beginning in January.”

Q. What was the highlight of your sabbatical?

A. “Visiting Quebec City where I presented a public lecture on printing history and gave a class to graduate students on early printed books at Laval University. Quebec is a beautiful walkable city that I had not seen since I was a child, and I was also interested to learn more about the ambitious project sponsored by the government to catalogue manuscripts and early printed books in private and public collections in Quebec.”

Q. How did you feel about coming back to campus?

A. “Coming back to teaching is more relaxing in a way than being on sabbatical. Being off campus gives you time to realize how far behind you are on things! Students are grounding and lend a focus that’s helpful. But, it’s good to be away from students for a bit; it gives me a fresh perspective. I love being back, and I am not sure I ever left!”

Q. It doesn’t sound like you had any time to relax.

A. “My husband and I did get down to the British Virgin Islands after New Year’s for a weekend of sailing, which was great but way too short!”

Q. Why is there such a fascination with the Middle Ages and things medieval?

A. “Many medieval stories feature giants, ogres, dragons, magicians, visits to the Other World, supernatural events and enchantments; ideas about magic and the boundless possibilities offered by the human imagination are still very compelling subjects. Also, we seem to be fascinated by the twin themes of idealization &m#8212; chivalry, knighthood, the Holy Grail, the Hunt of the Unicorn — and familiarity — when reading medieval texts, there is an almost constant recognition that human nature essentially does not change.”

While on sabbatical, Dr. Driver had her article, “Teaching the Middle Ages on Film: Visual Narrative and the Historical Record” published in the online journal History Compass. See the abstract below.

Q. How many films did you watch in preparation for this article?

A. “I watched dozens of films. It was fun looking at film clips - it is a hobby of mine, watching films with medieval themes.”

Q. What stands out in many of these films?

A. “The interplay between fiction and history: for example, we see idealized images of women juxtaposed with authentic portrayals. In films about Joan of Arc, for example, we see both historical events and idealized images. Joan has been a particularly popular subject on film, perhaps because so much of the historical record (her trial records in particular) remains intact.”

Q. What most historically correct film(s) would you recommend to anyone interested in the history/culture/society of the Middle Ages?

A. “The Seventh Seal, The Return of Martin Guerre, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail all have historical strengths. The first two films are richly evocative of a time and place, and all three provide provocative commentary on medieval ideas and perceptions (and on some modern notions as well). They are worth watching more than once.”

Q. What films are the most egregiously incorrect?

A. “Hard to say — several very compelling films use intentional anachronism to good effect. There are many films with medieval themes that are difficult to watch (Mists of Avalon is a good book but a terrible movie, for example) for a range of reasons. The recent King Arthur movie with Clive Owen is poorly researched and not particularly well written, but it is still one starting point for discussion of the Arthur legends in current popular culture.”

Q. What do you do to prevent Middle Ages burn out?

A. “Read novels and watch romantic comedies, either on stage or in the movie theater, when I can find the time. Riding bicycles on the boardwalk at the Jersey shore with my husband is a great way to relax.”


Book Publication
An Index of Images in English Manuscripts from the Time of Chaucer to Henry VIII, by Dr. Driver and Michael Orr, was published by Harvey Miller and Brepols Publishers in spring 2007. The book is one of a series of publications that lists and identifies all illustrations in English manuscripts from the time of Chaucer to Henry VIII. Dr. Driver contributed initially to the development of methodology for cataloguing images and co-authored the introduction that appears in all five volumes of this series.

Also published this summer by Brepols Publishers is The Making of Poetry: Late-Medieval French Poetic Anthologies by Jane H. M. Taylor, the first in the new series Texts and Transitions, which Dr. Driver co-edited for the Early Book Society at Pace University.

Online Article Publication
Dr. Driver wrote “Teaching the Middle Ages on Film: Visual Narrative and the Historical Record,” an article for History Compass, an online journal published by Blackwell, which was subsequently republished in World Compass and other related issues. View the article

Abstract: This article provides an overview of some of the contentious issues concerning the role of film in historical studies of the Middle Ages. Is it appropriate to point out inaccuracies of detail in historical film? As a collective commercial enterprise, is a movie inherently limited in its portrayal of the past, and does this matter? How does film convention affect representation? Can movies err on the side of historical truth? What are the uses of purposeful or intentional anachronism? How have perceptions of movies changed with the advent of the paratext on DVD? How might movies with medieval themes be used effectively in the classroom? Responses to these and related questions are drawn from writings on film from 1915 to the present.

Essay Publication
Dr. Driver’s essay “‘In her owne persone semly and bewteus’: Representing Women in Stories of Guy of Warwick,” has appeared in Icon and Ancestor: The Medieval and Renaissance Guy of Warwick, edited by Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field (Boydell & Brewer, 2007), pp. 133-153.

Dr. Driver organized and chaired the Tenth Biennial Conference of the Early Book Society, “Codices and Community: Networks of Reading and Production, 1350–1550,” at the University of Salford and Chetham’s Library, in Manchester, U.K. In addition to opening the conference, Dr. Driver chaired three of the conference sessions.

In July, she chaired and was respondent in a panel at a conference sponsored by the British Printed Images to 1700 Project at the University of London. Dr. Driver presented the keynote plenary lecture “Me fault faire: French Makers of Manuscripts for English Patrons in the Fifteenth Century” in July at the 11th York Manuscripts Conference 2007, held at the Centre for Medieval Studies, King’s Manor, in York, U.K. The lecture was an illustrated 60-minute talk about a French scribe and a French manuscript illuminator who worked for English patrons during the Hundred Years War.

Dr. Driver edited volume 10 of the Journal of the Early Book Society for Pace University Press. In spring 2007, she spoke at the meeting of the Medieval Academy in Toronto and lectured at the biennial Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (in addition to running six sessions at this conference which were sponsored by the Early Book Society).