The Medievalism of Dorothy L. Sayers

The cover of the biography of Sayers written by her student and friend, Barbara Reynolds (Amazon.com).

            On October 14, 1920, the words, “domina, magistra” were spoken by the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University at the first ever graduation day for women. The grammatically feminine gender of these Latin words marked a major twentieth-century transition for university education. Among this first group of women was Dorothy L. Sayers. She was awarded a first-class MA degree in modern languages, a degree that she had earned in its entirety at Somerville College, Oxford University five years before but could not receive at the time merely because she was female. While her degree was in modern languages, at the time, and especially under the influence of the medievalist at Somerville College, Mildred Pope, an undergraduate degree in modern languages would have contained quite a bit of medieval studies, and this influence can be seen throughout her varied career. Whether Dorothy was writing advertisment campaigns for Guiness Beer (she did the Toucan campaign) or Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels or radio dramas on the Life of Christ for the BBC or translating the Song of Roland and Dante’s Commedia, the Middle Ages seems to never be far from her mind.

The first female graduates from Somerville College, Oxford University (https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/about/a-brief-history-of-somerville/degrees-for-women/).

            Perhaps my favorite example from the Lord Peter mystery series occurs merely in her early characterization of Lord Peter in Whose Body? (1923). Dorothy Sayers admitted later than one of her motivations for writing Lord Peter, besides the need to earn money, was a certain kind of wish fulfillment during her own economically uncertain times. She imagines a character who has the means to live a life that she can only dream about. And what does Lord Peter do? He has his man, Bunter secure the purchase of rare books from an auction house while he follows up on a lead for his murder investigation:

“Thanks. I am going to Battersea at once. I want you to attend the sale for me. Don’t lose time—I don’t want to miss the Folio Dante* nor the de Voragine—here you are—see? ‘Golden Legend’—Wynkyn de Worde, 1493—got that?—and, I say, make a special effort for the Caxton folio of the ‘Four Sons of Aymon’—it’s the 1489 folio and unique. Look! I’ve marked the lots I want, and put my outside offer against each. Do your best for me. I shall be back to dinner.”

She even gives a footnote:

Aldine 8vo. of 1502, the Naples folio of 1477—”edizione rarissima,” according to Colomb. This copy has no history, and Mr. Parker’s private belief is that its present owner conveyed it away by stealth from somewhere or other. Lord Peter’s own account is that he “picked it up in a little place in the hills,” when making a walking-tour through Italy.

Notice that this isn’t an example of high-level scholarly influence. It is about the formation of her loves and passions soon after leaving Oxford. When she could fantasize about doing anything with money, she fantasizes about having enough money to buy expensive incunabula of Dante and de Voragine!

            In addition to writing mystery novels, one of Dorothy Sayers’ earliest jobs after graduation was working at an advertising firm, the one for which she developed the Guiness Beer campaign. It appears from a paper given years later at a Vacation Course in Education at Oxford in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” that medieval studies may have given her a unique perspective on the advertising industry. She gave this paper almost twenty years after personally working in advertising (and writing Murder Must Advertise based upon her experience) but only a few years after the end of World War II, when the powers of propaganda in the modern world were first beginning to be fully recognized. With these experiences in mind, she writes:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate that to-day, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of or unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechancial fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?…Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a “subject” remains a “subject,” divided by water-tight bulkheads from all other “subjects,” so that they experience great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between, let us say, algebra and detective fiction…between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?

Sayers suggests that the susceptibility of modern people to advertising and propaganda may be the result modern education. She even goes so far as to suggest that a return to the medieval trivium might be the best antidote! While realizing her proposal might be laughable, Sayers suggests that the issue is that “modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholars as he goes along” whereas “medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.” The medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric was not really a series of “subjects” but rather a way to train students in the verbal arts, enabling them to then apply those arts to whatever subject they studied. Without this kind of medieval training, the modern person is enslaved to those with the ability to spin words most effectively.

            These examples from Whose Body? and “The Lost Tools of Learning” give only a taste of the way Sayers’ undergraduate education in medieval studies shaped her later work. More could be written about resemblances between medieval mystery plays and Sayers’ 12-part BBC radio drama on the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King (and the way her medieval approach caused major controversy in 1942), not to mention her more serious scholarly pursuits translating The Divine Comedy (1949/1955)and The Song of Roland (1957). More could also be said on her remarks on medieval female brewsters in “Are Women Human?” (1947). What becomes clear, however, when one looks at her varied career is the impact of medieval studies upon the whole. The seeds of medieval studies sown at Oxford seem to have born fruit in her distinctively twentieth-century, modern life, one of the only times in history that a female graduate from Oxford University could be an advertiser, mystery novelist, radio dramatist, amateur educational theorist, and independent scholar.

First editions of Dorothy Sayer’s medieval works (abebooks.com).


Lesley-Anne Williams
PhD in Medieval Studies (2011)
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Selected Bibliography

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin Classics, 1950.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin Classics, 1955.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy, Part 3: Paradise. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. Twenty-Seventh Printing edition. Harmondsworth Eng.; Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1962.

Moulton, Mo. The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. First edition. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Lost Tools of Learning. Louisville, Kentucky: GLH Publishing, 2016.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition. Edited by Kathryn Wehr. Annotated edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Song of Roland. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1957.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Three for Lord Peter Wimsey: Whose Body? Clouds of Witness. Unnatural Death. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Whyte, Brendan. “Munster’s Monster Meets Dorothy’s Dragon: Lord Peter Wimsey Consults the Cartography of the ‘Cosmographia.’” Globe (Melbourne), no. 91 (2022): 61–74.

The Meeting in the Middle Ages Podcast: Asking What Medievalists Do, and How they Came to Do it.

In September 2022, the ‘Meeting in the Middle Ages’ podcast launched its first episode. It was the culmination of months of planning and preparation. Launched initially on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, we are happy to say that it found its audience. As we continue to post our monthly episodes and our audience steadily grows, we wanted to introduce the podcast to readers of the MI Research Blog and explore the rationale behind it.

What is the podcast?

‘Meeting in the Middle Ages’ is a monthly conversation with a medievalist scholar or graduate student. Each month, we as hosts (Will and Ben) sit down to find out ‘what medievalists do, and how they came to do it.’ Medieval Studies can seem like an inaccessible field, relying on knowledge of language, history, philosophers, theologians, and texts that general readers would rarely (if ever) stumble upon. We want to try and elucidate the work that medievalists do: what skills they have to develop, the ways that they approach problems. But we also want to share how people get into the field of Medieval Studies. Our guests, unsurprisingly, all have a love of history and research. But their paths to the medieval world have been varied and surprising.

As we continue to develop the podcast, we are keeping two audiences in mind. Our hope is that ‘Meeting in the Middle Ages’ intrigues not only excited graduate students like ourselves, but anyone interested in the medieval world or the many fields that intersect with medieval studies: history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, literary studies, and more.

How did it begin?

The podcast was born out of an independent research project for a leadership course. Early on in the course, Will knew that he wanted to work on a public-facing humanities project. Thinking through the idea of podcasting, he realized that there were plenty of excellent podcasts that could teach you about historical battles or literature. But there were none that explained how the research behind those other podcasts might be done. No one was there to explain ‘how the sausage got made.’ To pursue the idea further, Will asked Ben to join him in bringing the podcast to life.

As Ben recalls, ‘last year, Will approached me with a simple but exciting idea: a podcast for the Medieval Institute. As he started to explain the idea, I already knew my answer would be an enthusiastic yes. As young academics entering this field, so much of what medievalists do seems intimidating or mysterious. We appreciate the impressive books and articles that steadily flow from senior medievalists into our library, but we also want to know how such works were made. Getting to sit down informally with medievalists from across the world to discuss their processes, passions, and personal histories was too exciting of an opportunity to pass up.’

How is it going?

Since launching the podcast in September 2022, we’ve released three episodes and (at the time of writing) are gearing up to release episode 4. In Episode 1, we interviewed Dr. Andrew Irving of the University of Groningen and talked about the value of consulting materials in person. As his stories reveal, doing in-person research can lead you to record and analyze some very surprising parts of your materials! In Episode 2 we spoke with Eleonora Celora, a graduate student at Notre Dame who recently co-authored and published Décrire le manuscrit liturgique. Méthodes, problématiques, perspectives (Brepols, 2021) with Dr. Laura Albiero. Episode 3 is a chat with Dr. Rachel Koopmans and her fascinating work on the stained-glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral. We have several other interviews recorded and in the editing phase that we’re excited to share with you.

We’re extremely grateful to all the professors and students who have consented to participate in the podcast. They have been gracious with their time and support. Feedback has been very positive, and we are always working to improve our format and content. We’ve been able to expand our reach beyond Spotify and Apple Podcasts to include Google Podcasts and Overcast.

The podcast is a labor of love for us both. Through it, we’ve had to become sound engineers, social media managers, administrative coordinators, and, most important of all, interviewers. It’s been a challenging but rewarding opportunity that we hope will long outlive our tenure as graduate students at Notre Dame. We want this podcast to become part of the fabric of the Medieval Institute, and an outlet for public-facing engagement just as the MI Research Blog has become. We hope that the podcast will be a place for students to practice public-facing work while also sharing the exciting work of scholars at various stages in their careers with the broader community. The medieval is for everyone, and we hope you listen in and explore it with us.

Benjamin Pykare & Will Beattie
PhD Candidates
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Pilgrimage and Public Humanities

Pilgrimage and the institutions that supported it spanned the many cultures and religions of the ancient and medieval worlds. It was a truly global phenomenon of the Middle Ages. Pilgrims undertook their journeys to fulfill religious obligations, to give thanks for healing, and to receive counsel from spiritual experts. Established routes led to sacred sites located on natural landmarks or along waterways, and marked by temples, shrines, churches and mosques. Often pilgrims desired contact with a sacred object, like an image of the divine, believed to possess healing power.

Going on pilgrimage still appeals today to people religiously affiliated or not, and medieval routes continue to attract travelers. Moreover, pilgrimage is now being used in justice work as an embodied practice that can support liberation and healing. What are the common threads and important differences between the practice of pilgrimage in the deep past and our present moment? Can the long history of pilgrimage inform current thinking about hospitality and encounter?

The imperative to provide hospitality catalyzed the invention of major social institutions in the Middle Ages. Hospitals and other charitable associations were established across Africa, Europe, and Asia to house pilgrims along their route and welcome them at their destination. On pilgrimage, medieval people encountered different cultures, and a rich literature developed as writers published accounts of their travels. Ibn Battuta, a Muslim jurist from Morocco, devotes much of his famous travel narrative to recounting visits with Sufi saints and Islamic scholars; as he made the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325, he sought out their learning and their blessing. Similarly, the English Christian merchant and author Margery Kempe emphasizes the positive relationships she fostered while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome in 1413. She finds help and support from Muslim tour guides who comfort her, a German priest who hears her confession, and wealthy Italian women who provide for her when she embraces voluntary poverty. Pilgrimage, for these writers, was as much about the journey as the destination.

The Medieval Institute’s public humanities initiative for Spring 2023 will investigate pilgrimage as a global medieval phenomenon structured by practices of hospitality and cross-cultural encounter. Our “Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation” will, first, educate the public about the history, theology and liberatory praxis of pilgrimage and, second, sponsor two pilgrimage experiences. These events will help all who participate to understand how histories of violence and inequity have shaped our local environment in South Bend and to imagine how we might create a more just and inclusive community through systemic transformation. The participatory nature of pilgrimage lends itself to the work of public humanities as we partner with community organizations to “learn by doing.”

Beginning in January and continuing through March 2023, a series of webinars will present innovative research on cross-cultural approaches to studying the deep past as well as liberation theology and the arts. The first, “Pilgrimage in the Global Middle Ages: Hospitality and Encounter,” will compare medieval pilgrimage practices across the Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Chinese Buddhist traditions to explore commonalities and differences, with particular attention to the themes of hospitality and encounter. The second, “Pilgrimage and the Praxis of Liberation,” will examine theologies of pilgrimage and racial reconciliation. The third, “Sacred Art and the Journey toward Justice,” featuring artist Kelly Latimore, will consider images of the holy encountered at pilgrimage destinations with a focus on Black/Brown iconography in the Christian tradition. Finally, “The Black Madonna for Racial Liberation: A Spirituality to Empower Sacred Activism” will feature Dr. Christena Cleveland, author of God Is a Black Woman, which tells of her pilgrimage to France to see Black Madonna statues. Dr. Cleveland’s public theology models how pilgrimage and story-telling can serve the work for racial equity.

Artist Kelly Latimore created this Black Madonna icon, “Our Lady of Prompt Succor,” for the city of New Orleans, LA. Latimore will be a featured speaker in our webinar series.

This learning will prepare us to embark on two in-person pilgrimages in April 2023. One will take place in Chicago, where we will visit sites connected to Father Augustus Tolton, the first self-identified African-American man to be ordained a Catholic priest. He is currently one of the six African-American candidates for sainthood. By walking in his footsteps and visiting the site where he died, we will remember Tolton’s witness to the Gospel and his perseverance within the church despite its endemic racism. He strove to realize the church’s mission to be “truly Catholic” and inclusive of all people.

Venerable Augustus Tolton (1854-97)

For the second pilgrimage experience, participants will walk through the city of South Bend to landmarks from local African-American and Civil Rights history. We are partnering on this event with the local chapter of Faith in Indiana, a non-profit organization that mobilizes faith leaders to work for racial and economic equity. The goal is to raise consciousness and foster conversation around issues such as access to housing, health care, education, employment, and capital. Along the way, we will hear from speakers immediately impacted by structural violence, make connections between the landmark sites and current issues in local politics, and imagine the kind of community we want to live in – one that is inclusive, equitable and just.

We invite all friends of the MI to join us on the way.

Annie Killian, Ph.D.
Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame