As a scholar, Rose A. Sawyer researches the way in which underlying societal tensions can be expressed through elements of the medieval imaginative landscape. She is particularly focused on the experience of childhood in the Middle Ages, she argues that, if we are to develop a more complete and nuanced understanding of medieval culture, the study of the experiences of individual medieval children and wider medieval ideas about childhood is essential. However, the medieval discourse that constructed their ideas about childhood was not restricted to discussions of fully human children, it also incorporated the strange, uncanny, or supernatural child. These figures could be used by medieval people in a way that allowed for the articulation of a wider range of anxieties of concerns than in depictions or discussions of human children. For instance, through depicting the development of a supernatural child, one can, consciously or unconsciously, grapple with fears about raising a non-normative child. Incorporating these marginal attitudes into our concept of medieval childhood is vital if we are to arrive at a comprehensive picture of medieval childhood.
Her recently completed doctoral research project was an inter-disciplinary one, focused on the child substitution motif — that is the idea that a human child is/has been removed and another being, the changeling, substituted in its place — as it manifests in texts and images from Western Europe during the latter half of the medieval period. Through detailed comparison of a wide variety of sources, she addressed key questions about the significance of the motif. She engaged with the figure of the changeling as a cultural construct, an element of the medieval imaginative landscape that is invested with meaning through its cultural context and that can therefore be used as a lens through which to examine societal tensions; particularly regarding infants and children: their health, care, and position within the familial unit. This incorporated an overview of the etymology and semantics of words used in north-west Europe during the Middle Ages to denote a changeling. She also investigated how the examination of changeling sources can contribute to our understanding of the medieval discourse surrounding the health and care of infants and children. Finally, she discussed how the child substitution motif could function as a means to articulate other anxieties, such as those stemming from familial, theological, or socio-political tension. This research project is the most comprehensive examination of the medieval changeling to date and, as such, makes a valuable contribution to the fields of childhood, family, and disability studies.
Her new project examines medieval depictions of half-human children, that is children with one human and one non-human parent, in medieval sources from the twelfth to fourteenth century, both textual and visual. The figure of the half-human child is imbued with an ambiguity that lends itself to diverse analyses, many of which centre around what it means to be human. Born with a hybrid heritage, their bodies are a potent site of struggle, the exact nature of which can depend on the nature of their parentage. Thus, a portrayal of child that is the product of demonic rape might address questions of salvation, or how a child born of rape fits in to their community, while a depiction of a child with one non-human animal parent might allow for an examination of the nature of monstrosity or concerns about humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
At Keble she teaches Old and Middle English literature through Prelims Paper 2 - Early Medieval Literature c.650-1350 and FHS, Course I: Paper 2: Literature in English 1350-1550.
She also has extensive teaching experience in medieval survey modules, as well as the specific areas of medieval childhood, magic and the supernatural, and medieval Icelandic history and culture.
- 'A Miracle of Thomas Becket: De puero syntectino (Concerning a boy suffering from a wasting disease)', in Medieval Disability Sourcebook: Western Europe, ed. by Cameron Hunt McNabb (Punctum Press, 2018)
- ‘Changeling Stories: The Child Substitution Motif in the Chester Mystery Cycle’, in Literary Cultures and Medieval/Early Modern Childhoods, ed. by Naomi J. Miller and Diane Perkiss (London: Palgrave, 2019)
- ‘Trading Words: Child substitution etymology and semantics’, journal article, to be submitted to Medium Aevum.
- Medieval Changelings: Anxieties surrounding health and childcare in the European Middle Ages, book proposal, submitted to Boydell and Brewer.