The pleasures and peculiarities of returning to Trinity, 40 years on

Ardis Butterfield is Marie Borroff Professor of English, French and Music at Yale, before which she was at UCL. An undergraduate at Trinity in the second year of female admission, Professor Butterfield has returned to the College as Senior Visiting Fellow Commoner for a year.  

How are you spending your time at Trinity?

My research interests range widely across English and French literature and music in the Middle Ages. I am spending this period of research leave mainly trying to complete an edition of medieval English lyrics, taking account of the trilingual context (Latin, French and English) in which many of the manuscripts were copied, and the patchy survival of music.

I also hope to make further progress with a book on medieval song, and finish essays on such topics as bilingualism, world lyric, and untranslatability in the Middle Ages, as well as co-editing a volume of essays on scholasticism in honour of a friend and colleague.

I am spending my time enjoyably reliving many other things too: the twice-weekly contemplative evensong in Chapel with the choir’s superb singing, the sumptuous silver-lit gloom of dinners in Hall under the gaze of Henry VIII, the unchanged antiphonal declamation of Trinity’s long Latin grace, walks along the Avenue, and connecting with new and old friends.

One of the songs I am including in my edition is the famous ‘Ther is no rose of swych vertu’, which survives on the fifteenth century Trinity Carol Roll: happily for me it was sung often by the choir in the run up to Christmas.

Part of the Carol Roll
Part of the Trinity Carol Roll

What is it like returning to Trinity after UCL and Yale?

It has been a huge pleasure, as well as a complicated trip back through many memories. Since I was last in residence here much and also little has changed; perhaps most and least of all myself! There may not be a much higher proportion of women among the students and Fellows, but the atmosphere is clearly benignly influenced by the presence of some very strong, brilliant, and compassionate women at all stages of their career and affiliation. I feel enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of UCL and now Yale as well as Trinity.

I enjoy teaching, and coming back to where I was taught helps me remember that being taught well can be taxing as well as diverting. I remember many kinds of shock: arriving at my first supervision at 9am and being offered whisky because my teacher had run out of coffee; the length of the Faerie Queene; the exquisite torture of a revision class that revealed with terrifying precision how glibly ill-informed and unprepared most of us were for our exams; being told never to generalise and to read the Oresteia in French; the exhilaration of an hour’s intense discussion of a poem, or sometimes of a single line or word, that offered a glimpse of what I was beginning to grasp about language and the creative imagination.

I learnt how to write my own prose with an attentiveness that might (but more usually did not) prevent it from merciless but invaluable detailed correction; how to convert the pleasure of literary and linguistic observation into a reasoned, and even persuasive argument; that nothing was too hard, or too obscure, or too old to read and try to understand. I hope some of these experiences inform my teaching now.

What is special about a sabbatical at the College?

Trinity for me now is special not only because of its long centuries of history and learning, but also because of sudden moments of kindness I have received: from the Porters, who are as ever founts of all knowledge and wisdom about the workings of the College; the Manciple, an incomparable guide to all social and sartorial questions; and fellow Fellows, from the most senior to the most junior, who have reached out with gifts of books, conversation, coffee, Sunday mince pies, visits to the Clock Tower, home dinners, and much else.

One of my most valued pleasures as a medievalist is to have my own bay in the Wren: sitting at a desk surrounded on all sides by manuscripts I can reach down and pretend are mine in such a magnificent and yet personal setting is almost too distracting a privilege for me to get any real work done. But some is getting done, thankfully.

To what extent has Trinity changed since your undergraduate years?

Well no one has thrown me into the Fountain this time round I am glad to say! And I am grateful that Pilates has arrived to offset the rigours of all the excellent dining. It was moving to see opposite me at my first dinner back my former Tutor (for one term), Phillip Allott. Although I can’t resist saying that returning to Trinity is not entirely unlike going to the in-laws’ for a family Christmas, the best things have not changed and I am now able to appreciate them all the more: an unquestioned assumption that everyone strives for the highest scholarly standards; freedom to think; freedom to be oneself.

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