Our Stories

A View into Medieval Times

Mention of medieval literature may draw more groans than cheers from many college students, but Ana Montero has made it her mission to change that view.

She understands where the students are coming from -- she remembers her college years at the University of the Basque Country in her native Spain, when she thought medieval literature was only conservative stories about wars and politics.

Then Professor Eukene Lacarra, one of the world's most renowned experts in Spanish medieval literature, showed her a different side of the subject. Montero found the literature included provocative themes that appealed to her, including feminism, love and sexuality.

"Professor Lacarra demonstrates the way I would like to see myself as a teacher, as someone who will change people's perspectives and prejudices," says Montero, an assistant professor of Spanish. "I want to show people that medieval literature isn't boring."

Teaching a course called "Sexuality and Eroticism in Medieval Europe" goes a long way toward dispelling the stereotype. She leads the class as part of College Colloquium, a program that allows first-year students to pick a class topic that mirrors their interests and pursue their intellectual passions as soon as they arrive on campus.

Students sometimes are intimidated at first by discussing sexuality, Montero says, and are surprised to find that it was a common topic in the arts during medieval times.

Take La Celestina, for instance. This widely studied story, published in 1499, is considered to be one of the greatest works of medieval Spanish literature. The title character: A woman who runs a brothel.

Montero has pored over the pages of La Celestina multiple times, but she isn't just reading the text. Her main area of research is the way illustrations and printed text interact in medieval literature. She's writing a book about the meaning behind the illustrations in La Celestina, and she hopes to publish it next year.

Numerous studies have been done on the classic story, but Montero found none on the illustrations. "We tend to consider these two representations in a hierarchical way, by seeing the illustrations as subordinate to the text," she says. "But in medieval times, there wasn't that hierarchy, and they were seen as being on the same level."

The typical thought is that illustrations enhance the story, but Montero has found in some medieval books that the pictures actually contradict the text. This is partly because of differences in book printing of the time, she says. The books often were hand-copied, written on after they were published, or interpreted in different ways by different printers. Pages -- and the illustrations on them -- might not always be in the same place between different editions.

"They were considered a space for interaction as opposed to a fixed static space," Montero says.

As for La Celestina, Montero describes the title character as "a woman in a marginal position," someone simultaneously known as a sorceress, a healer and the leader of a brothel. In other words, she was a bit of an outlaw. But she also is a matchmaker, an activity she is so famous for that the word "celestina" has become a synonym for "matchmaker" in the Spanish language.

"The illustrations are very interesting because they give insight into the character," Montero says. For instance, the pictures often depict Celestina in front of or between black doors. "This represents her status of being between places, between her public and private personas."

It's yet another medieval literature lesson where Montero is getting her students to sit up and take notice.