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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Toronto Medieval Latin Exam

Love or hate it, it is a bench mark that not just the Centre for Medieval Studies in Toronto uses, but other North American universities who have 'Medieval Studies' departments. For instance Cornell asks that you pass the MA level Medieval Latin exam to be accepted into their Medieval Studies program.

So I didn't pass this time, but I came up about seven marks short. Here were some of my frustrations. First, it is hard to study vocabulary when the lists encompasses all of the words. When studying for exams in the past you read through the passages you have done in class and study vocabulary you have already seen because that is what you are expected to know. Also, for this year and in previous years there are some straight forward passages but there are also several passages from philosophical treatises. Sometimes those are hard to understand in English. I might argue that if people should be allowed a dictionary into the exams, only because in real life if you were reading a document there is no way that you would not have access to a dictionary. If the candidate knows nothing of the grammar there is no way he will figure it out during the time allotted for the exam. I feel I was well prepared, having studied quite a bit before I went in, but it is hard to remember all the principle parts of a word. But, fair and square, I missed this years test by seven marks so I will take it again in April and hope that I have studied the right vocabulary. And the more you practice the easier it is to internalize all the different parts of verbs.

I was in Newfoundland at the time that I wrote this, working at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. I took a week off and drove into St. John's for the test. It was my first visit to St. John's. I didnt get too lost around the university, but I will say that it was good that I left myself some extra time for figuring it out. I started the test at 1pm Newfoundland time, so I did start before those who were writing in Toronto. I have to say I felt pretty good coming out of it. I followed the suggestions that I had heard, to think of what is logical if you don't know and to not leave blank spaces. One thing I stupidly forgot to study was numbers, but my logic won out on that point. Despite the fact that I didn't pass, I was pleased with the result, as all the passages did turn into something readable, if not always right.

I understand the point of the test though, since Latin is the language of Western European documents, some places right up into the twentieth century. It is good to be able to just read it, and for all my complaints about the range of vocabulary, vocabulary is part of being able to read Latin at a glance. In the Middle Ages Latin is ubiquitous so best brush up.

And yet I can also see why some object to the Medieval Latin Exam amongst medievalists. It is clinging to an older model of 'Middle Ages,' in that it is privileging the Latin language over others that are out there at that time. Arguably Islam plays a poignant and remarkable role in the development of the Western World, particularly during the Middle Ages. It makes no sense to keep an Arabic specialist out of the prestigious Centre for Medieval Studies because they don't read Latin. And yet, even the Arabic specialist would agree that some sort of ancient/medieval language is required. The other problem is that the standard is in some ways a bit arbitrary. And having a specialized test is a bit elitist, in that the standard is imposed from an old sort of tradition about the nature of Medieval Studies. (Not that the institution is not slightly elitist. Of course another word for elitist is prestigious, which is why everybody wants to go there. We know having the name of the school on our pieces of paper is worth it because they made us jump through hoops to get there and not everyone did.)

I would not propose taking away the test, just pointing out some of the problems with all. Overall its effect is more positive than negative. The school, despite some of the real problems it has had of late in the area of adaptation (something I have learned from people who go there) maintains its reputation through the maintenance of standards and continues to be a benchmark for Medieval Studies in the rest of North America. It also ensures that future medievalists are prepared to deal directly with original documents as opposed to relying on looking at the documents through the lens of someone else's translation. There are valid objections to the whole process, but I have been convinced of the Latin Exam's utility.

This September's Medieval Latin MA level Exam:

The first passage was from the Memorial Book of Vadstena Abbey, Diarium Vadstense, on the arrival of a mysterious stranger from Rome
This was the easiest passage to translate as it recounted the story of a priest named Robert who arrived at the Pope's behest from Rome on a secret mission.

The second passage was from Smaragdus on penitence.
I started to have trouble since this one was much more philosophical.

The third passage was William of Conches on the ambiguous stature of Boethius's Lady Philosophy.
This one was only easier because I have already read Boethius. In fact in fourth year I joined a Latin reading group where we read parts of that text in Latin.

The final passage was titled: How great, how wonderful is the vision of heaven in peter Abelard's hymn for Saturday Vespers.
They gave us hints to the content of this one in the title. At the same time there were certain parts of this I definitely had trouble with.