In the Spring of 2008, Professor Tom Shippey was preparing to depart the St. Louis University English Department for a well-deserved retirement* back home in England. As a going away present, he left his graduate students with a simple idea–getting together regularly to talk about medieval literature. Four of us began meeting that summer at the Scottish Arms, our favorite local pub**, and we took our name from one of the first texts we read. In the fourteenth-century romance The Tale of Gamelyn, Gamelyn is forced out of normal society and must take up with the outlaws in the forest. The Woode-walkers are those powerful troublemakers who cannot walk in town, most famously medieval folk-heroes like Robin Hood, William Wallace, Gamelyn, and Hereward. We have taken our name from this outlaw tradition because we see ourselves as rebellious medievalists in a modern American university. But this name also fits our group because of the adjectival meanings of “wood” as mad, insane, or rabid, and as the OED says, “Going beyond all reasonable bounds; utterly senseless; extremely rash or reckless, wild; vehemently excited.” “Woode” or “wod” appears in works such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in the writings of King Alfred, Layamon, Chaucer, Gower, Henryson, and even Shakespeare, and so we saw it as a fitting descriptor for our new group.
Each week throughout the year the Woode-walkers get together, and the discussion is led by the “uthwita,” the Old English word for scholar or prophet. We have read and discussed a wide variety of texts, including Old English poetry; Latin saints’ lives and historical chronicles; Old Norse myth and poetry; Icelandic sagas; Irish and Welsh mythology’ Middle English romance, prophecy, drama and political writing; Spanish, French, and German literature; and modern texts on critical theories, orality, medievalism, and medieval studies.*** As Tom envisioned, this reading group has allowed us to research, read, and discuss a vast body of medieval (and later) texts that we otherwise might not have encountered. The Woode-walkers have also expanded beyond weekly textual analysis and have held discussions on St. Louis University’s MA and PhD comprehensive exams, professionalism and the job talk during on-campus interviews, and the current state of medieval studies.
As testaments to our tenacity and dedication in the pursuit of medieval texts, we have expanded to include more than a dozen active members in the last three years and have outlasted (not one but) two local coffee-shops. Our new favorite gathering place is coffee-shop #3, the SLU institution Cafe Ventana. The fact that we have outlasted two local coffeeshops. The Woode-walkers are actively expanding our views and activities beyond St. Louis by presenting our scholarship at local, national, and international conferences, and also organizing sessions based on material that we read and discussed at our weekly meetings. We have an ongoing relationship with the annual M/MLA Convention, and in 2009 we organized and presented in a panel under the title: “Migration, Movement, and Displacement in Medieval Literature.” This year’s M/MLA Convention will feature 2 sessions organized by the Woode-walkers on “Playing with Medieval Minds.” We are also inviting our first speaker to campus this year and plan to organize additional conference panels and on-campus events in the future.
* Tom told me that his retirement would consist of sitting in his garden and relaxing, so that passersby would be unable to distinguish his motionless body from the nearby tree stump. I later learned, however, that Tom has been as busy as ever with publications, especially in many festschrifts of his numerous retirement-aged colleagues.
**I strongly recommend any of the Fuller’s or Belhaven draft beers, especially the Fuller’s ESB when it is available, because a little bitterness now and again can be a good thing.
***A complete list of everything that we have read and discussed will be posted soon and the updated each semester. Prepare to be wowed!