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Julia Mattison: Medivalist and Early Modernist

By Jessica Schumaker 

Julie MattisonDr. Mattison’s office is south-facing, so the mid-morning sun illuminates the medieval posters on the walls and the books on the shelves. It’s a welcoming space -- there’s even a wire basket of snacks by her desk. 

Despite the homey style of her office, Dr. Mattison hasn’t called Georgia home for long. She received her B.A. at Yale University in French and English, but then crossed the Atlantic for her Masters at Oxford University. Finally, she returned to North America to complete her PhD at Toronto University. 

Since her undergraduate career, Dr. Mattison has been drawn to medieval studies. At Yale, she took a course titled “The Age of Cathedrals in Paris,” and from that point onward she knew her career would involve the intersections of history, manuscripts, and language. While studying at Oxford, Dr. Mattison was able to access many more primary sources, such as medieval books, documents, manuscripts, and buildings, that led her to view books and languages as reflections of medieval culture and society. By studying medieval texts and how language functions within them, she hopes to open new windows for analyzing the past.

In one example of her research, Dr. Mattison discusses an old, popular Arthurian legend. It was spread through England, but instead of being written in Old English, it was written in French. She grows animated as she talks about the linguistic impacts of the Norman Conquest, which transformed upper-levels of English society into a multilingual aristocracy. 

It is this type of syncretism of languages, literatures, and cultures that is so fascinating to Dr. Mattison. However, this intersection is under-researched, as people from both sides of study - English and French - are unsure where, exactly, the literature falls under. Luckily, Dr. Mattison cares little for categories, and far more about the important conclusions that might be drawn from a more interdisciplinary study of these types of literature and language.

The physical study of manuscripts is also a passion of Dr. Mattison’s. Between old, decaying pages, many treasures can be found. For example, a flower, pressed between lines of Latin, aged and forgotten. “It’s interesting to think about how something that for them was an everyday object has become such a valuable source to us,” she says. Or a cat’s footprint as they walked over fresh ink while stalking mice. There are less romantic things, like dirt, or even book curses -- violent poems directing misfortune and injury at book thieves. What wonderful continuity; hundreds of years ago people treasured their books just as much as they do today.

Dr. Mattison is just as cool outside of her office as she is in it. First off, she was wearing a sweater that she had knitted herself when I interviewed her -- you can’t get cooler than that. She also enjoys cooking, and doesn’t limit herself to one culture either. “It depends on what I have access to,” she says, meaning that in the Netherlands, where she was an assistant professor, her style was largely European, but now that she’s back in the states she can cook a richer variety. In contrast to the serenity Dr. Mattison says cooking brings her, she seeks the adrenaline provided by top-roping, a style of rock climbing. “It’s very stress relieving,” she says sarcastically, “to be twenty, thirty feet off the ground.” To relax from that harrowing experience, Dr. Mattison enjoys watching bad reality TV, reading all of Jane Austen (especially Emma), and listening to Boygenius.

To wrap up the interview, I ask Dr. Mattison a question I’ve been thinking about: If she could show something created by humanity to an alien society, what would it be? 

She takes a moment to think, then says, “Notre Dame.” Beyond its architectural and historical significance, the building itself is representative of 19th century medievalism, which has its roots in “colonialism, nostalgia, and nationalism.” These issues bleed into the value placed today on “white, Western, Christian art” over non-Western art, as seen with reactions to the 2019 fire at Notre Dame versus the lack of sympathy for other losses of cultural heritage. “For me, Notre Dame is as much an idea of the past as part of the actual past.” To show aliens Notre Dame is to show them the refracted rainbow of humanity: the dreams, the losses, and the bones the present is built upon. 


Jessica Schumaker is a third-year English major and the undergraduate media intern for the English department.

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