Bristol’s MA Medieval Studies: partnerships, placements and progression

By Dr Benjamin Pohl, Programme Director of the MA Medieval Studies

Whilst students wishing to study the rich and fascinating culture of the Middle Ages can choose from a variety of postgraduate courses across the UK, those opting to make the University of Bristol their home and enrol in its flagship programme MA Medieval Studies are offered the exciting opportunity to do a bespoke work placement with a partner institution from the culture and heritage sector.

A medieval manuscript from the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey
A medieval manuscript from the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey

For the coming academic year (2021/22), three new exciting partnership agreements have been signed with the Church Conservation Trust, Bristol Baptist College and, most recently, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one of the UK’s largest and most important collections of medieval manuscripts and rare books.

Offered as an optional module, the placement is credit-bearing and replaces one of the taught modules. Instead of spending more time in the classroom and being taught by one of the many experts from Bristol’s thriving Centre for Medieval Studies, placement students have one day a week over the course of twelve weeks with their partner institution. Some remote placements are available for those unable or preferring not to travel in person. In addition, placement students are given the option to replace their capstone dissertation with a practice-led project accompanied by a critical reflective commentary that develops their work placement further.

We curate our list of placement partners very carefully and keep it under regular review to ensure that students will always have the best possible experience. Our aim is to match students with suitable partners to accommodate their individual research interests and help them build relationships that endure beyond the duration of their degree.

Past and present placement partners of the Bristol MA Medieval Studies include the University Library’s own Special Collections, the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives at Cambridge University Library, the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey, the Cathedral Library and Archives at Gloucester Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral, St Mary’s Church in Portbury and, since 2020, Berkeley Castle.

Flyer for an exhibition at Berkeley Castle
Flyer for an exhibition arranged by one of our students during her placement at Berkeley Castle

Every year we are delighted to see the results of these student placements, and the scope and quality of the work produced by our brilliant students are most impressive. Not only do they speak to academic audiences from a range of disciplines, but they also attract significant public interest. Recent examples of public-facing student work emerging from placement partnerships include an exhibition on The Women of Berkeley Castle, an online edition and facsimile of Gloucester Abbey’s most important medieval chronicle (Gloucester Historia Online), and key contributions to the major online exhibition History & Community: 20 Exhibits from Downside Abbey.

It is not only the students who benefit from the placement option, however, but also the partner institutions. Berkeley Castle, for instance, hosted a placement student in 2020 who has since taken up the permanent position of Visitor Business Assistant. Jenny Low, Visitor Business Manager at the venue, told us she was extremely impressed with our student’s work ethic and enthusiasm.

Dr James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library (CUL), also praised the work of two of last year’s placement students who encoded selected manuscripts from the CUL’s collections and produced critical online catalogue descriptions, describing their work as a “tremendously useful contribution to scholarship”.

Rebecca Phillips, Librarian and Archivist at Gloucester Cathedral, reported the following: “Having a placement student has felt like gaining a colleague, and has enabled us to deliver a project that would otherwise have been impossible. I would recommend any other heritage venue to work with the University of Bristol and share the joy of providing a placement for the next generation of medieval historians.”

Dr Benjamin Pohl
Dr Benjamin Pohl

Feedback from our partners is invaluable to us and speaks volumes about the unique opportunities our MA Medieval Studies students have here at Bristol – not only during their degree, but also with a view to future career prospects. Creating these opportunities and facilitating relationships beyond the degree is an integral part of our mission – it’s what we do. I’m already in the process of liaising with additional partners for the coming academic years, so watch this space!

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