Meet Dr Sarah Corrigan, Allan J Myers Lecturer in Classics

In 2023 we were thrilled to welcome Dr Sarah Corrigan as the newly appointed inaugural Allan J Myers Lecturer in Classics (Latin Language and Literature). Dr Corrigan received her PhD from the University of Galway in 2017 and has since held fellowships funded by the Irish Research Council, working on a variety of projects. Dr Corrigan works, among other things, on the transmission of texts through the times, spanning from the Ancient to the Early Medieval world, as well as the new frontiers of the field in digital humanities. Current PhD candidate Christian Hjorth Bagger sat down with Dr Corrigan to learn more about her research and teaching.

Welcome to Melbourne and the University! First of all, how have you and your family settled into Melbourne and how do you find life Down Under?

Thank you so much! We’ve been here for just over five months now and I have to say that we’re loving it. Melbourne has so much to offer in terms of food, culture and adventures, and I know we’ve barely even scratched the surface. I also love that despite living in a big city, the neighbourhood where we live feels like a community. It’s such a gift to have the best of both worlds in that way. Our first impressions were also helped along by the fact that the Melbourne winter we arrived into happened to be warmer and drier than the Irish summer we left behind!

Starting in this new position has also been such an exciting adventure. I was bowled over by the warm welcome I received from students and colleagues in Classics & Archaeology, and SHAPS in general. I feel like I’ve been supported every step of the way in making this huge move. There is also an amazing amount of interest in and support for Classics outside of the university here – it’s very encouraging.

You are the new Allan J Myers Lecturer in Classics (Latin Language and Literature); can you tell us what it is about the Latin language and texts that make them so interesting from a historical perspective?

This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, perhaps particularly in relation to the challenges of investigating the ancient world with students.

One of the goals of scholars of all levels is to find a connection with the very real people who inhabited the distant past. We strive to discern their voices and to identify the impressions they made on the environments in which they lived. For me, the most compelling way to do this has always been through the written word. Whether texts are personal, like private letters, or aimed at a wider audience, like epic poetry, they contain evidence of the people who composed, shared and consumed them, of their lives, their values, their struggles, their worldview.

The appeal of Latin to me has always been how eclectic the body of evidence in this language is. From its emergence in Italy, Latin was tied to the expansion of Rome and made its way throughout the Mediterranean region. In some areas, Latin persisted for two millennia or more – you can still find pockets of it today; in religious services, for example, but also in several Latin news shows, all entitled Nuntii Latini, one of which was, until recently, broadcast on Finnish public radio. As a result, the body of evidence offered by Latin language texts has a vast range, both geographically and temporally. Its function first as the language of an empire and then as the language of Christianity also means that it often interacts with regional languages in ways that reveal so much to us about those people who wielded more than one language and were working to synthesise different elements of the cultures in which they lived and wrote. This is very much the case in early medieval Ireland, on which some of my research focuses. Here, the Latin language was introduced to an Irish-speaking population predominantly through Christianity and its core texts. The result is that Irish language and culture had a pronounced impact on the Latin texts produced in Ireland, including astonishing innovations in lexicon and literary style. A fascinating instance of this is the new terminology the Irish introduced into Latin to facilitate a discussion of the substantial tidal movements they experienced, which of course were lacking in the Mediterranean world.

Many Latin texts are also among the body of ancient narratives that still enthral the modern reader. As well as that, the distant past, or a version of it, is also commonly used as a setting for modern storytelling, whether in books or films. This means that there is a thriving interest in the ancient world, and people have a strong relationship with these historical contexts and their narratives. This can lead to an overly mythologised view of them, particularly as some of the most popular and engaging stories feature the fantastical and the monstrous. More significantly, it gives people a vested interest in learning more, in delving beyond the narrative to discover the reality behind its composition.

Thinking about Latin, we often think of the Romans or the medieval Catholic Church. Two perhaps vastly different topics. Can you tell us a bit more about your research interests and how you reconcile the two?

That’s a great question!

The key concept in this case is the idea of continuity I think. When I studied English as an undergraduate, our curriculum spanned from Beowulf to Shakespeare to Modernist poetry and beyond, and it also ranged geographically across the English-speaking world. I don’t think anyone would think to question this diversity of period, location or, indeed, genre; the subject at that level is a survey, or a history, of a body of literature in a given language.

We can think of Latin literature in the same way if we choose to: it spans from ancient Rome, its empire and its influence, into the medieval Christian context and on into the modern Romance language literatures. The topics of ancient Rome and medieval Christianity may seem vastly different, and of course they are in many ways, but they are two points on a deeply compelling linguistic, geographic and cultural continuum. My goal in both teaching and research is to try to delve into the point on that continuum represented by each piece of textual evidence, and to parse out the elements of transition and continuity that it is witness to – that’s how we continue to resolve a clearer view of the past.

Which subjects will you be teaching here at the university and why should one take these subjects?

I’ll be working with the Honours Latin students in Semester 2 and I think I’ve probably done enough extolling of the value of Latin Language and Literature at this point! Latin reading groups like this are some of my favourite subjects to work on though, as people’s responses to literature vary wildly and ideally everyone, including me, comes away with new insights.

Attic Greek Red-figured pelike, excavated in Fikellura Cemetery (Kamiros), Rhodes. It shows Thetis and a Nereid bringing arms, made by Hephaistos, to Achilles who mourns Patroclus, c470 BCE. British Museum, 1864,1007.126

Another subject that I’ll be coordinating and lecturing on is an Ancient World Studies subject called Underworld and Afterlife (ANCW30011), which will be undergoing some significant changes for 2024. We’re reintroducing live lectures to the subject and redesigning the modules too.

It’s a subject that draws people in because some of the most enthralling ancient Mediterranean myths are about adventures and misadventures in underworlds, and encounters with the gods and monsters that inhabit them. The macabre can have an appeal of its own too. It’s also a subject that strives to get to grips with that core aspect of humanity that is our relationship with death. We explore how people interred, mourned, and commemorated the deceased, as well as the sometimes unsettling place that grief can occupy in a society.

The materials that we examine and discuss in the subject encompass all of these aspects and it makes for a fascinating range of topics for exploration: storytelling, mythmaking, religion, funeral practices, mortality, grief. Of course, wrangling these topics in a course that encompasses evidence from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, presents many challenges, but I think that’s part of the appeal too.

Latin literature may come off as a dry subject mostly suited for dusty scholars of a long-gone era – is Latin really only for scholars of the ancient and medieval world?

I think Latin will be solely for scholars of the ancient and medieval worlds when scholars are the only people with any interest in those worlds, and a quick survey of your local bookshop, cinema or streaming service will put that contention promptly to rest.

The value and importance of modern translations and adaptations of Latin texts cannot be overstated. They provide access and understanding (and pleasure!) to an audience exponentially larger than that of the Latin originals; however, they nonetheless remain a step removed from those originals. Aside from its inherent linguistic interest, knowledge of Latin narrows the divide between us and those Latin worlds that fascinate us so consistently.

You have also recently worked in Digital Humanities. How do you see the future of Classics, Latin Language and Texts, and History unfolding in the modern digital age?

I think in many ways, digital approaches to the arts and humanities are still in a very experimental phase. A key aspect of this is that we are recognising that Digital Humanities as a blanket term is about as informative as the phrase ‘Textual Humanities’: as the field develops, it has become clear that it can mean a vast array of different things.

Some elements of it, such as digital dissemination through databases, online resources and visualisations, are well established (though still not consistently well supported), but proportionally few projects have the ability and the resources to fully engage with the transformative nature of digital research practices. As with all research developments, I think that as we learn more clearly from those working on the cutting edge of what digital approaches can offer the humanities researcher, new methodologies will emerge and become more consistently integrated with the way that we work.

One area that I think will potentially become more prevalent will be the use of databases that use TEI XML encoding. Many scholars already use TEI XML to produce online resources, including digital editions, and XML databases bring that same dynamic flexibility to more complex sets of information. Using spreadsheets is already a commonplace in humanities research, and this is the next step in terms of data analysis, organisation and presentation (a great example is the de Heresi project by Dr Jean-Paul Rehr). Alongside digital visualisations, it is integral to the collaborative research project that I’m currently developing that seeks to synthesise and reveal the interactions between the numerous layers of evidence contained in early medieval compilatory manuscripts.

Christian Hjorth Bagger is a PhD candidate and commencing Graduate Research Teaching Fellow in Classics and Archaeology. His research focuses on the networks, power, and influence of elite senatorial women in the late Roman Republic (c133–27 BCE). In 2024 he will be a member of the teaching team for Ancient World Studies.