Undergraduate Brooke Thomas Holds the Past in Her Hands

Brooke Thomas
Brooke Thomas

By Jay Patel

It’s hard to fathom how much Brooke Thomas has achieved in her time here at Mason. The junior currently is a double major in Honors English and Spanish, an OSCAR Undergraduate Research Assistant, and she was recently accepted to the Folger Library Undergraduate Research Seminar. But to hear Thomas talk about it, it almost seems inevitable. She’s just doing what she loves. “I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given this year. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been a lot of fun.”

Thomas has had a winding road to her path towards the English Department. Growing up in Florida, she was initially interested in Biology, even getting hospital funding for a research project she developed in high school. After spending some time with Biology and looking at the course listings she decided it was not for her. “I’d much rather do some sort of analysis, and working with history; developing cultural connections between pieces, seeing how we humans have evolved culturally,” and not just biologically. But, Thomas says, “it founded my love for research. It really helped me get to where I am today.”

Then, after coming to Mason, she started as a Communications major. “It was good, but I’d always loved English,” she said. And at some point, Thomas relented: “Let’s just do it,” she recalls. “Let’s go for it.”

Still, though she had found her place at the English Department, she hadn’t found her niche with early modern and medieval literature until she took a course with Josh Eyler. “I loved the way he made medieval literature modern. He brought this connection that made so much sense. We used a lot of modern connections, like Twitter, in the class. He just sparked that idea that we should be paying attention to this stuff. This is what we grew out of, this is who we are, and this is our language. We need to focus on this stuff to figure out who we are and why.” She puts it succinctly: “Early modern and medieval literature really just had that spark for me.”

That spark has carried Thomas quite far. She is currently an OSCAR Undergraduate Research Assistant for Erika Lin, and just started the Folger Library Undergraduate Research Seminar this Spring semester. “The research with Professor Lin is really cool. We’re going through the EEBO (Early English Books Online) database systematically, going through every single entry in the database (the EEBO database contains digital facsimiles of late fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century books of all sorts, everything from travel narratives, royal proclamations, anatomical texts, religious treatises, astrological almanacs, cookbooks, marriage manuals, and anything in between).

“I started at the year 1600, and now I’m at 1601, so it’s slow going. But it’s really informative and it’s great to see everything that’s there, since a lot of people don’t get that opportunity.” The work that Thomas is doing is going to feed into Lin’s second book. “We’re looking for any festive references in these texts, and Professor Lin is going to use them to see how those festive references have condensed into what we now call modern theater. It’s super interesting.”

Thomas said that “theater is very difficult for me,” but of course that doesn’t mean she’ll shy away from a challenge, or that she won’t find the beauty behind something difficult. “It’s just really interesting to see how all these festive references come up. We have a list of key words and when we look at each reference we have to decide if this is actually a festive reference or not.” Going over references like card games or bear baiting isn’t always what it seems, and defining what category a reference is can be difficult. But, Thomas says, that’s what makes it fun.

A lot of what Thomas is doing now is directly related to her future work at the Folger. “I’ll have to pick a book and then research its history, its aura, the different people who have had it, the different marginalia in the margins. Everything possible about the book.” Though the Folger is mostly geared towards Shakespeare’s work, Thomas wants to focus on something else entirely. “There is such a wide variety of stuff produced in this time, particularly before the 1700s, that hasn’t garnered enough attention.” She goes on to talk about how she’d like to focus on treatises of comparative language. “I saw on EEBO 200 pages of same sentences in Latin, English, French, Dutch and Spanish. It was really interesting to see how they translated.”

The Folger will have a lot more information within its walls than Thomas has seen before (“It’s kinda terrifying, a little daunting,” she says), and while Thomas is excited to delve into the piles of data contained in the Folger, she also sees what the books mean beyond just the data it might contain. “Once, Professor Lin took us to Mason’s Special Collections and Archives and we got to touch a book by Francis Bacon, it was great. Getting to touch the books… it has such a long history attached to it other than just the fact it was printed. People wrote in these books, these were books for personal use. It’s great to read the different marginalia and annotations that people have made over the years. That this is what someone thought, that this was the culture that was applied into it as well.”

Though Thomas is no luddite, there is something about books that draws her into this kind of research. “With these texts, you get to see it, you get to hold it. You see where it’s bent, what’s happened to the binding, where people have marked in it. All these things have contributed to how it is. Now everything is on a computer. And you have pirating, malware, and things like that, but there’s not the same sort of thing that happens to each individual piece. Each owner doesn’t put their mark on the text.” And of course, there is a more immediate sense that draws Thomas in: “I also just really love the smell of old books.”

What’s next for Thomas as she enters her final semesters at Mason? “I’ll be applying to graduate school for Early Modern Literature programs.” She’ll also be applying for a Fulbright Scholarship, hoping to go to England.

Thomas has worked very hard, but the opportunity that has been presented here is not lost on her. “This is something that not a lot of people get to do. I feel really honored that [the Folger] trusts me enough to do this. Even just to step in the door, it’s really an honor.”

     In the months following when this initial article was written, a lot has happened to Thomas. She will have a paper presented at the MadRush Undergraduate Research Conference, which will be held at James Madison University in late March. The paper, “The Dream of the Rood and Medieval Cross Veneration in Context,” is a study on “the ways the cross is venerated in The Dream of the Rood, one of the earliest Old English poems which focuses on a personified cross, or rood, and its relationship with and paradoxical crucifixion of his lord, Jesus Christ. The poem calls into question early medieval social structures, like the comitatus, which is based on a lord/thane relationship, and how issues of transgressing this hierarchy play out. This preliminary analysis of my primary source is compared to the ways in which many people, including monks of the Middle Ages to soldiers on more contemporary battlefields partook in cross worship.”
     At the Folger, Thomas settled on analyzing an almanac by John Securis for the year 1581, and was once owned by William Potter. Though the book is small, “no larger than a first generation iPod” Thomas says, she “imagine(s)
that Potter kept this almanac close to him; its small size allows for easy transport and the frequency of manuscript in the book itself implies that it may have worked for him as what can be thought of as a modern-day agenda.”
     The almanac had some interesting features in it, such as a plate at the end of the book that folds out and is covered in manuscript. Thomas recalls once when she and a classmate called up an herbal, a text that is like an index on how, when, and where to grow certain plants, ended up having actual leaves pressed within the p
ages. “It was really a treat not only to touch a leaf, potentially from 1597, but to see that these books, even one as dense as this herbal, were really used, loved and took on a life of their own that I am fortunate enough to have a glimpse in to.” She sums up her time so far at the Folger succinctly: “It's truly an irreplaceable experience.”


(Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library)