As an English major, I have become somewhat accustomed to the frequency with which I am asked to devour and digest literature. Not uncommon is the request that one breeze through a novel of three hundred pages in a weekend, and this for a single class. Therefore both comforting and taxing is the fact that a similar tempo exists in the British education system. For one of my classes, a study of gender and sex in nineteenth century literature, I will have read seven novels at the time of writing this post, in addition to writing some four thousand words in the form of weekly responses.
Unlike the small liberal arts education that we all know and love, however, students of Exeter University enroll in a specific “college,” and take only classes focused in a single subject, I having enrolled in the College of Humanities. As such, rather than a classroom full of diverse interests and majors, classes are comprised of largely like-minded students. Also unlike Vassar, rather than taking four or five classes, one is constrained only to two classes, if both are advanced level (what we would call 300-level). Because of this reduced schedule, classes are far more intensive, and the increase in free time results in higher volumes of work outside of the classroom. A benefit of such a narrow educational emphasis is the opportunity to explore more closely a certain field. Had I known that not taking calculus was an option, I would have moved to England a long time ago.
In order to fulfil my language requirement at Vassar, rather than taking French or Spanish or something practical, I decided to throw caution to the wind and study Old English: in all senses of practicality, perhaps a mistake; in terms of enjoyment and interest, thrilling and fascinating. To study the very roots of the language you speak on a daily basis without a second thought is both engaging and enlightening. After spending a semester leaning the ins and outs of the language itself, and then another semester translating the infamous Beowulf out of the original Old English, I had become somewhat accustomed to its quirks. As such, when the opportunity arose to take an Old English poetry class here in the UK, I jumped on the chance.
There exist today only four collections of Old English: the Junius manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Norwell Codex, and the Exeter Book. For some reason that escapes me, it was not until I arrived here in England that I made the connection between the city in which I was staying and the eponymous Old English tome. The largest collection of the bunch, the Exeter Book contains poetry, riddles, and more. Imagine, then, my excitement when I was told that my class would be viewing the ancient and priceless collection of poetry first-hand. Located in Exeter Cathedral in the heart of the city proper, the Exeter Book has been housed there since the 11th century when it was donated by Leofric, Bishop at Exeter. Although originally part of a larger collection of tomes, the Exeter Book is the only one that remains in the cathedral library. While normally off-limits to the public, my class was granted special permission to have a private session with the resident librarian at the cathedral.
It was particularly blustery that morning as I made my way across town to the towering cathedral. The ornate stone spires groaned against the wind, and I met my class behind the building at the library area. Together we were led down a couple of hallways and into a back office. In place of the velvet ropes, laser sensors, and armed guards that I was expecting, was instead a simple wooden and glass case that housed one of the foundational texts of the English language. It was, to say the least, awe-inspiring. Lying before me was the source of many of my hours of study, impressive and weighty in its simplicity. Made from completely natural ingredients–parchment made from hides, ink from minerals, etc.–the Exeter Book was just that: a book. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but the plainness of the artifact only added to its mystery.
Being able to view personally an object of such historical significance was a one-of-a-kind experience. And I suppose that’s the purpose of studying abroad: to try new things, to have unique encounters, and to broaden one’s horizons. I’m thrilled that such an incredible chance to reconnect with my origins as an English major, and I hope other students have similar opportunities in their futures abroad.