Nicholas Watson
Nicholas Watson studies ‘vernacular religious texts written in England between the Fourth Lateran Council and the Reformation,’ including descriptions of visions of Jesus and magic texts. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Nicholas Watson loves a challenge. As long as it doesn’t involve a classroom of 15-year-olds.

Watson, a medievalist, joined Harvard’s English Department faculty as a tenured professor in the fall. The very description of his field of study – “vernacular religious texts written in England between the Fourth Lateran Council and the Reformation” – sends the lay person scrambling for a dictionary. The texts themselves, written in Middle English or the Anglo-Norman dialect of French instead of Latin, the accepted scholarly and religious language of the day, would confound even Berlitz.

Yet it was the challenge of reading these texts that drew Watson to them as a student at Oxford in his native England, even as he turned his back on page-turners like Victorian novels. “I found the absurd levels of difficulty involved … in coming to an understanding of these much older texts completely enthralled me. And I still do,” he said. “It’s a pleasure of trying to empathize, trying to feel your way inside a different culture’s views about faith.”

Watson likens his work, which primarily concerns the period from 1200 to 1500, to “trying to make a picture of a period when a lot of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are missing or haven’t been assembled yet,” he said. Many of the texts he studies are anonymous, and he might know little about their circumstances: where the texts are from, the position of the authors, the literacy rates of those who encountered them.

“But they still have personalities,” he said. “The texts are my characters.”


Narrow escape from high school

Although he grew up in the medieval English city of Winchester, where, he said, “things medieval were very prominent … they dug up a 15th century stone coffin from my back yard when I was a teenager,” Watson set out to be a schoolteacher, not a medieval academic.

After his undergraduate studies at Cambridge University and before pursuing a teaching degree, Watson detoured to Oxford University, where he set out to do a master’s degree and study subjects he knew he’d never “get around to on my own,” he said. Medieval literature fit the bill – so much so that when he applied to teachers college, his credentials recommended him more to academia.

“I had this grueling interview [at the teachers college] at which my desire to be a teacher at all was challenged,” he said. “They took two hours trying to convince me that my plan to teach 15-year-olds in the city comprehensive schools was stupid.” Watson owes a debt of gratitude to his inquisitors, admitting, “I would not have been a very gifted high school teacher.”

Although he was accepted into the teaching program, Watson returned to Oxford for another year of study. He married a Canadian academic and moved to her home country to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, which he calls “one of the best places in the world to study things medieval.” Watson came to Harvard from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, where he’d taught since 1990 and became a full professor in 1997.

‘In the Middle Ages, if you’re thinking seriously, you’re thinking religiously’

Ever the overachiever, Watson is at work on three large projects simultaneously, explaining that the nature of his work is so slow that most medievalists pursue several endeavors at once. One is writing the first sustained history of vernacular religious writing between 1066 and the Reformation. “It is a very big project,” Watson said, involving sifting through tens of thousands of pages of text in the original languages, for the most part Middle English.

The term “religious,” he explained, had a much broader definition in the Middle Ages than it does today; religious writing encompassed not only religious treatises but also narrative poetry, romances, and other-worldly journeys, stories of going to heaven and hell.

“Religion is a very capacious idea. In the Middle Ages, if you’re thinking seriously, you’re probably thinking religiously,” he said. “Which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re thinking according to orthodox lines at all, it means that the issues that you’re concerned with, you’re going to express in religious language: God, the devil, the Virgin Mary, saints, angels, heaven and hell are going to come in, one way or another.”


Into the mystic

Watson’s other two projects concern the visionary experiences of two medieval writers, Julian of Norwich and the French monk John of Morigny.

The former, a woman considered one of the greatest English mystics, had a series of visions of Jesus when she was gravely ill. She recovered and wrote a book based on these visionary experiences called “A Revelation of Love.” Watson calls the text, the first English text known to be written by a woman, extraordinary. “It’s one of the most important writings of the period,” he said.

Watson discovered “Liber visionum, ” a Latin text of ritual magic by John of Morigny, with his colleague Claire Fanger of the University of Toronto; they are working together to study and translate it. Breaking from his scholarly demeanor to describe the project as “really cool,” Watson related “John the Monk’s” story.

As a schoolboy at Chartres, John couldn’t afford books so instead was directed to “Ars notoria,” a condemned magic text that prescribed a system of rituals that would “infuse” the practitioner with the knowledge of the traditional liberal arts and sciences. As he used the system, John began to have diabolical dreams and visions. To make them stop, he struck a deal with the Virgin Mary that he would abandon “Ars notoria” if she would help him write a new magic text; his “Liber visionum ” is the result.

Watson considers mystical writers and visionaries one of his specialties. Visions were one of the few methods, he said, that writers could use to introduce new ideas in the medieval culture, in which citing authorities was very important. “If you don’t have the opportunity to write as a well-educated person writing in Latin, then one of the major ways you can have a voice at all, and you can think for yourself, is by visionary experience,” he said. It’s no accident, then, that many of the medieval visionary experiences are written by women, who otherwise could not make their ideas known.


Bringing the Middle Ages alive

At Harvard, Watson is teaching some courses based on his interest in religious and visionary writing, such as this semester’s “Necessary Lies: Visions, Novelty, and Fiction in Late-Medieval Literature,” as well as more traditional ones, like a course on the Middle English blockbuster “The Canterbury Tales.”

Fellow medievalist Daniel Donoghue, professor of English and chair of the search committee that brought Watson to Harvard, is confident that Watson will become a sought-after lecturer. “What attracted us to him in the first place was the quality of mind that we could see in his writing,” said Donoghue, citing elegance, depth, and quality of ideas as hallmarks of Watson’s scholarly work. “He has a very literary turn of mind.”

Watson also advises graduate students, inheriting four and bringing one with him from Canada. He sees the recruiting of young scholars as important: “We’re a field that has to plan carefully for its future,” he said. The inherent difficulty of medieval studies, as well as the temptation to sweep away the old to make way for new courses, means that its scholars must champion the field’s continued relevance.

For his part, Watson is almost evangelical about the subject. In his teaching and particularly his writing, he hopes to “make the period live for a fairly wide variety of readers. I’d like to make the period comprehensible and interesting and intellectually rich,” he said.

Vernacular religious texts of medieval England need not be relegated solely to the domain of scholars like Watson, he said. They tell “the story about the English language at a period when it wasn’t a world language, a period when it was a relatively low-status language,” he said, adding that the work probes themes of access to knowledge, education and ideas in the Middle Ages. “It’s the story of people, some of them without much education, using this low-status language to think seriously and for themselves about what actually mattered to them, as well as what they were told ought to matter.”

For further introduction to Nicholas Watson and Middle English literature, join him and members of the English Department and the Medieval Colloquium for a public reading of what may be the first Valentine’s Day poem, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowles,” on Thursday, Feb. 14, at 4 p.m. in the Faculty Club Library.