Not many people have had an opportunity to have a diverse career. Professor Tracey Cooper, originally from Northern England, is one of the few who has.
Until she was 25, Cooper was a social worker, but returned to Boston College to further her education in history. Currently, Cooper is an assistant professor in the History Department. She has taught courses such as History of Britain I, Medieval History I and II and a class on medieval women for the last three years at St. John’s.
She is also in the process of developing two new courses: one concerning the Crusades, and another focusing on the impact the fall of Rome had on Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Because of her expertise in this area, Cooper appeared in a History Channel documentary last summer on mythical characters in literature and offered her keen insight into the Anglo-Saxon culture.
In August 2009, The History Channel released Clash of the Gods, a documentary on the origins and social impact of ancient mythical characters. Cooper appeared in three episodes reflecting and analyzing historical and contemporary texts with other scholars. Topics discussed prominent characters from different time periods like Beowulf, Thor and J.R.R. Tolkien’s monsters in Lord of the Rings.
“They did a good job with the graphics. The re-enactments had a very literary feel,” said Cooper. “It wasn’t just a group of guys marching up a hill in costume.”
She explained that mythological creatures in medieval literature are mainly symbolic representations of pressing issues of the time.
“A lot of the way people thought and talked in the medieval period was about allegory. The monsters represent fear, greed, lust and those things that were important to fight against,” said Cooper. “These issues are not going to come out unless you analyze [the text] a bit.”
As an Anglo-Saxon scholar, Cooper has spent countless hours pouring over manuscripts discovering a better interpretation of medieval culture. She is especially fascinated with a collective book of 98 different medieval texts called BL Cotton Tiberius A III.
Currently, Cooper is working on a book concerning the manuscript that will be published in three years. She said this manuscript is a good representation of the intellectual culture between 1015 and 1035 A.D.
These texts discuss subject matter from prayer and liturgy to science and magic, linking them all together into a useful book for bishops and priests to keep on hand.
“There were some pretty wacky things. They imagine the growth of a fetus to be woven,” said Cooper. “Also, they think they can predict what kind of person you’ll be depending on the day of the week you’re born and what the outcome of an illness will be depending on the day that you fall sick.”
Throughout her career, Cooper has been able to get her hands on ancient pieces of literature, which is a major honor for people in her field. Cooper said she feels that the most exciting moment in her career was when she was at the British Library and got to touch the BL Cotton Tiberius A III firsthand.
As she turned the pages and analyzed the text, Cooper noticed figures drawn next to a page concerning the remission of sins that were supposed to evoke sympathy in the priests.
“Nobody knew it was there before I spotted it. So, it sat in the margin for nearly a thousand years without anybody seeing it or talking about it. That was exciting,” said Cooper.
She is on a quest to share her insights and enthusiasm of history with more people. Cooper is also working on a second book concerning the dragon slayers in medieval culture and literature.
She hopes to explain the reasoning behind the sudden popularity in saintly dragon slayers such as St. Michael, St. Margaret and St. George during the 11th and 12th centuries and how what previously was considered an Eastern Byzantine phenomenon suddenly became popular in Western Europe.
Cooper said she feels history is the umbrella that gathers all forms of the liberal arts into one scope for further knowledge in the study of mankind.
“You think there could be very little we could say about things that happened over a thousand years ago. Every generation starts with a new set of principles,” she said.
“Their exposure to certain movements or political views or cultural trends changes the way they look at the past. So, the history changes.”
In Cooper’s opinion, history shines a light on individuals.
“It’s not just a collection of stories that we read to each other and tell and retell,” she said.
“The story changes all the time. I think that’s what makes history continually exciting.”