Graduate School Alumni

Elizabeth Teviotdale

Medieval to Modern: What Script Tells Us

Elizabeth Teviotdale

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Teviotdale

Each spring, thousands of scholars travel to Western Michigan University from across the world, and the campus hosts more than 500 programs related to medieval studies. The International Congress on Medieval Studies turns Kalamazoo, Mich., into a modern-day “Brigadoon” for a few days each year, says Carolina graduate alumna Dr. Elizabeth Teviotdale – and she should know, because she is one of the event's key planners.

Teviotdale, assistant director of Western Michigan's Medieval Institute, says the international congress is the world's largest annual gathering of scholars and enthusiasts of things medieval. Her own determination that future generations of scholars know how to read medieval scripts makes the event even more meaningful to her.

“Essentially, nearly all we know about the Middle Ages we know from the written record,” says Teviotdale. The ability to interpret handwriting used in the Middle Ages, a field called paleography, is both basic and necessary to advancing knowledge about the Middle Ages, she adds.

Teviotdale's interest in paleography began when she was pursuing her doctorate in art history at UNC-Chapel Hill and learning from Dr. David Ganz in the department of classics and other world-renowned faculty in medieval studies across the campus. She had previously received her master's degree in music history from Carolina, as well as her master's degree in art history from Tulane University.

“I was lucky enough to be at UNC when there was a semester-long course [in paleography],” she says. “Both in my graduate training and since then, I have had a lot of work in paleography. All of us who teach paleography have a degree in something else, so our training often comes in bits and pieces.”

Her commitment to manuscript studies and, specifically, to paleography has led to many rewarding professional experiences. After a year and a half of teaching at two universities, she spent 10 years at Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum, as assistant curator and then associate curator of manuscripts. In 2002, she left Los Angeles for her current position at Western Michigan.

In addition to organizing the international congress, she teaches paleography to graduate students, at the university and beyond. She has fond memories of teaching a semester-long course in paleography at Chicago's Newberry Library: “Because of their holdings in Renaissance studies, they are concerned that people be taught how to read the scripts,” she says. In early fall of 2011, she taught Latin paleography to students at the National University of Ireland, Galway for two weeks.

Interaction with an actual medieval manuscript, which she has experienced from her days as a graduate student to the present, shows her “the raw materials that combine to make something magical.” She wants graduate students to connect to the way the parchment was sewn together and to appreciate the fact that they “turn those pages just the way a medieval monk or nun might have turned the pages of that book.”

Above all else, she wants to teach what is beyond the script: “People are at the heart of this. People make conscious decisions that determine the size, shape and appearance of each manuscript book.”