Introduced in the 2018-2019 academic year, the Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories is a unique offering for first-year students interested in the transmission of knowledge and preservation of intellectual culture during the medieval era. As one of three SMC One seminars at St. Michael’s, the Boyle Seminar brings together the strengths of two St. Michael’s-sponsored programs – Medieval Studies and Celtic Studies – to give participants an interdisciplinary foundation for future academic work, preparation for careers in a wide range of fields and an opportunity to go on an international learning experience in Ireland.
Assistant professors Máirtín Coilféir and Alison More seek to give new students experience in manuscript studies, history and the Latin and Irish languages, but the program also serves as an effective bridge to university-level academic work more generally. Open to around 20 students each year, the small class size of the Boyle Seminar helps each cohort to bond into a tight-knit group, and gives each student one-on-one time with both professors.
A Hands-On Approach
Professor Coilféir, who teaches in the Celtic Studies program, describes one of the primary themes of the course as “the practical application of theoretical knowledge.” Instead of giving students a dry survey of medieval and Irish culture, he and professor More give students direct experiences of the practices that monks used centuries ago to create and preserve manuscripts, which are the hand-written copies of documents prepared in the medieval scriptorium.
By encountering parchment first as a dried and treated animal hide, students begin to see the living material basis for history. “We spend quite a lot of time talking about ‘how do we go from cow to page?’” Coilféir says. Practical experience with parchment, ink and feather quills, which the students cut into usable pen nibs, helps to reinforce the notion of medieval and Celtic culture as representing a living history – one that students are equipped to take up with gusto.
Most Medieval Studies programs for undergraduates follow a very different and far more traditional pattern than that of the Boyle Seminar at St. Michael’s. Professor More, a medievalist, describes the typical progression for an academic in her field as requiring at least three years of dry study before a typical student gets a chance to see or touch a manuscript.
By contrast, the Boyle Seminar puts centuries-old manuscripts in the hands of students during their first months at university. This fearless and practical approach to the artifacts of the period gives students a solid basis for “manuscript studies and the often-baffling sources of medieval history,” More says, as well as training that can serve as effective preparation in a variety of other fields such as law, theology and cultural conservation.
The May trip to Ireland reinforces the practical emphasis of the course, with visits to ancient cultural sites including an active archaeological dig at the Blackfriary Archaeology Field School. Though not for academic credit, the trip gives students an opportunity to handle artifacts fresh out of the ground and learn contemporary archaeological methods.
A St. Michael’s Tradition
With both the Pontifical Institute of Medieaval Studies (PIMS) and the John M. Kelly Library located right on campus at St. Michael’s, it only makes sense for the Boyle Seminar to rely on the research institute and library’s holdings to give students access to special texts for the course.
One of the seminar’s key texts is Integral Paleography, a collection of articles about different scholarly approaches to medieval writing. This book has a special connection to the seminar: it is the work of Fr. Leonard Boyle, OP, the scholar and former PIMS professor for whom the seminar is named.
Fr. Boyle was an important figure at PIMS and helped to build the University of Toronto’s Medieval Studies program, now hosted at St. Michael’s. In 1984, Fr. Boyle left Toronto for Rome after Pope John Paul II appointed him Prefect of the Vatican Library. There, the scholar-priest worked for years to expand access to the library’s holdings to scholars around the world. In so doing, he changed the reputation of an institution “not well known for its hospitality to visitors” into a place where “the doors were flung open from morn till night,” as Nicolas Barker wrote in his obituary for Fr. Boyle for The Independent.
The spirit that animated Fr. Boyle’s approach to the Vatican Library – prioritizing access for everyone who needs it – continues to animate the Boyle Seminar. In line with a storied history of scholar-teachers at St. Michael’s, professors More and Coilféir open up a world of ideas and experiences while helping students to make lateral connections across disciplines. Rejecting the Ivory Tower model of the academic enterprise in favor of a robust commitment to the liberal arts, the seminar’s approach fuels creativity and courage in first-year students’ approaches to their academic careers and later readiness for the workplace. As one student observed, “when you think about the past, you think more about the future.”