- by Mount Saint Mary College
Rob Wakeman

This past year was a whirlwind of academics abroad for Rob Wakeman, assistant professor of English at the Mount. 

With the aid of a faculty development grant – awarded by the college’s Faculty Development Committee – Wakeman traveled to Ireland in March to attend the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) conference in Dublin. Then, in July, he packed his bags once again and headed to the New Chaucer Society conference in Durham, England.

Wakeman’s research has long focused on the literary history of food, with his current work delving into the representation of food, animals, and agriculture in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The overseas conferences gave him the opportunity to present his own research and learn from other experts in the field. 

Starting with the last-minute cancellation of his study abroad course to London, which had been set for March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has instilled an increasing sense of wanderlust in the professor.

“After two years of lockdown, I was eager to get abroad,” Wakeman explained. “I attended a lot of Zoom conferences during the pandemic, and many of them were great. But there’s nothing like learning face-to-face.”

Celebrating European scholarship

At Dublin’s RSA conference – the world’s largest for historians and literary scholars who study Europe between 1300 and 1700 – Wakeman worked with colleagues at York University and Lausanne University in Switzerland to present on the history of taste. Specifically, Wakeman discussed new research on the dinner party scenes in Francis Beaumont’s The Woman Hater, a comedic social satire piece written in 1607.

Outside of the conference, he experienced the museums, libraries, cathedrals, distilleries, and breweries that have stood for hundreds of years, enriching his understanding of the past. Also while in Dublin, Wakeman took a short trip to the sixth-century monastic city of Glendalough in Wicklow Mountain National Park, where he followed medieval pilgrimage trails and “explored the stunning landscapes that inspired so much Irish literature,” he said. 

After an unforgettable experience in Ireland, summer brought Wakeman to the New Chaucer Society conference, a biannual meeting that focuses on late medieval England. It was here that he presented a paper on medieval veterinary medicine as represented in plays from the time period. 

Mik Burch and Louise Goodman, both 2022 graduates of the Mount, assisted Wakeman with the initial stages of research through the Mount’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), which pairs students with mentor professors. Over the summer of 2021, Burch, Goodman, and Wakeman immersed themselves in the topic. 

Burch and Goodman “did a ton of research on the history of veterinary medicine which was pivotal,” he explained. “I learned so much from working with them and my only regret is that they couldn’t come to present the work with me.”

Via the New Chaucer Society, Wakeman also visited Rievaulx, a medieval Benedictine abbey nestled in a remote valley in Yorkshire, and the ruins of Helmsley Castle, which had been destroyed during the English Civil War. 

“Understanding monastic culture and the immensity of castles are key to understanding medieval and early modern literature, so now I have even more contexts – and lots of pictures – to share with students when I lecture on these subjects,” he said. 

Professor Wakeman's travels took him to Dublin, Ireland (above) and to Ilkley in England.

Summoning the rain

But it was in London, Wakeman’s favorite city in the world, that he had perhaps the most memorable experience of the trip.

One evening he went to see a performance of King Lear with Kathryn Hunter, of Harry Potter and Andor fame, in the lead role. It was performed at the open-air venue Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern recreation of what the Globe Theatre looked like in the Renaissance. At the time, England was in the midst of a brutal heat wave. The evening of the performance was on the hottest recorded day in history with temperatures of more than 100 degrees. 

“Right in the middle of the play, there’s a scene in which Lear, full tilt in a fit of madness, charges out into the wastelands and calls up a storm with blowing winds, driving rain, and cracking thunder,” Wakeman explained. “And wouldn’t you know it, right as Hunter spoke these lines, the skies opened up and the rain came down to cool us all off. I’ve seen King Lear a dozen times, but I’ve never seen an actor conjure up a real storm from the stage.”

The scene was indicative of the ephemeral nature of live performance, he said: “It was pure wonder and a beautiful reminder that every time you step into the theater, you will experience something that only the people lucky enough to be there right then, right there will get to experience.”

Hands-on research

The library of Trinity College Dublin in Ireland

On top of presenting at the conferences, Wakeman also engaged in hands-on studies with one-of-a-kind relics. With much of his research based on hand-written manuscripts that haven’t been digitized, Wakeman must often travel to libraries, view local records, and examine archives in person. Unsurprisingly, England and Ireland provided a wealth of content for Wakeman to investigate.

While in Dublin, the professor studied at Marsh’s Library, one of the best-preserved 17th century libraries in the world. Situated right next to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, this library dates back to when Ireland was an English colony. 

In England, Wakeman went to the British Library and the Wellcome Library to investigate 17th-century family recipe books. 

“Just as anyone with a family recipe book knows, these 17th-century books were treasures that were passed down from generation to generation and are now kept in these libraries,” he explained. “Recipe books offer incredible insights into how people lived in the Renaissance, what families ate, what they aspired to eat, and how recipes preserve family traditions and record new culinary innovations.”

Armed with new and exciting knowledge, Wakeman quickly began passing it on to his students at the Mount. New strategies and approaches to Chaucer and medieval biblical drama, for example, were soon incorporated into his syllabi. Additionally, in his upcoming English Capstone Seminar, he will be integrating Beaumont’s The Woman Hater and other plays he examined at the conferences.

As for the ill-fated study abroad experience in England – one of the first casualties of the COVID-19 lockdown – Wakeman is already planning its successor: “I’m looking forward to reviving plans to teach it in future years,” he explained. “I really hope that networking with scholars at British universities, museums, and libraries will pay off for Mount students.”

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