Master of the medieval

July 19, 2012, 2:28 a.m.


Master of the medieval
Elaine Treharne, an acclaimed medievalist, is the Stanford English Department's newest addition for the upcoming school year. (Courtesy Elaine Treharne)

For Elaine Treharne, the Stanford English Department’s newest addition, it’s all about the past — or in Treharne’s case, medieval studies, her discipline of choice.

“For me, [medieval studies] is about connecting with people from the past, and also recognizing that people from the past are affected the same as us, even if the things around them and the environment in which we live is so different.”

Treharne, who has been in the field for over 20 years, specializes in the cultural contexts, contents and languages of early English manuscripts and as a result has become an expert on medieval texts and teachings.

Treharne, 47, was born in Aberystwyth, a small town in Wales. She grew up as an active member of her congregation at St. Peter’s Church in Carmarthen, along with the rest of her family, including her stepfather, who played organ during church and served as choirmaster. Treharne’s mother and brother were in the church choir too, and so the family spent much time performing at church services, weddings and Christmas specials.

Treharne recalls that most of her childhood was spent cycling around her neighborhood with her friends, adventuring all day long with only biscuits and orange juice and returning at night to tea with her family.

“I had a busy childhood — that’s the best way to put it,” Treharne said.

Reading was also a cherished pastime for the budding academic. She read everything from Edith Blyton to any classic novel she could get her hands on. Between pursuing a vibrant intellectual life and performing in her church choir, Treharne led an active life.

Treharne’s mother, a history teacher, profoundly influenced her interest in medieval studies. She had always been fond of writing, but it was the numerous medieval cathedrals and the monasteries her mother took her to as a young child that really piqued Treharne’s interest.

“I had a clear idea that I wanted to work with literature and writing and teaching when I was extremely young, and it has to be because my mother was a history teacher,” she said.

By the age of 12, Treharne knew that she wanted to work with medieval records.

Master of the medieval
Elaine Treharne, the Stanford English Department's new medievalist, was interested in teaching long before she attended college, as evidenced by this grade school rendering of her ambitions. (Courtesy of Elaine Treharne)

“[Medieval texts give me] a chance to connect with people who lived more than a thousand years ago in a way that is very difficult to do other than through examining texts,” she said.

To pursue her passion, Treharne attended the University of Manchester, where she majored in medieval studies and met her future husband, Andy, to whom she’s been married for 21 years. From there, she was awarded a Procter Fellowship at Princeton University for her third year of doctoral studies, where she obtained her master’s, also in medieval studies, before returning to the United Kingdom to attend University of Manchester, and later, the University of Liverpool for her Ph.D.

After attending college, Treharne got married, moved to Cambridge and taught at the University of Leicester, one of the United Kingdom’s top universities, for what Treharne declared to be 15 “glorious years.” She went from being a lecturer to a professor to a dean, and it was then that she realized she wanted to take her talents elsewhere, and so in 2005-2006 she and her family of four moved across the pond.

Upon arriving to the United States, Treharne secured a job teaching in the English Department at Florida State University. While at Florida State, Treharne continued to write and edit books on medieval teachings. To date, she has worked on 23 academic texts, which have won a number of awards.

When Treharne was offered a teaching job at Stanford in early 2012, she and  Andy were thrilled that she had reached the big time, due to Stanford’s “reputation for brilliance.”

However, Treharne believes that the real jewel in Stanford’s crown is that it is the top-rated university in the world for arts and humanities, something she feels people often overlook due to its renown in the sciences.

Although she’s eager to start her new teaching job, Treharne is also looking forward to enjoying her new home’s proximity to campus.

“I’m excited that I can walk to work, because it’s the first time ever I’ve been able to do that,” she said. “It was a 50-mile drive when I worked at Leicester.”

Gavin Jones, head of the English Department, is just as eager to welcome Treharne to campus.

“We hired Elaine because she is quite simply the best Medievalist for Stanford,” Jones said in an email to The Daily. “She is also an astoundingly fine teacher who will reach out to undergraduates by bringing to life materials that can sometimes seem difficult and inaccessible. Elaine is, in this sense, a Stanford Thinker through and through.”

Treharne will drive to Stanford from Tallahassee starting Aug. 1 in two cars with her husband, her two children, their two black lab mixes and their “lunatic” black cat named Jack Sparrow.

And come fall, Treharne will continue to teach the past while focusing on crafting a future at Stanford — one medieval text at a time.

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