Female medieval saints misrepresented, award-winning UC student finds

03 December 2020

Female saints who were not supposed to be role models are the subject of surprising research that earned History Master’s student Jane Comeau three prizes at the recent University of Canterbury History Awards.

  • Jane Comeau with Heather Wolffram and Jonathan Le Cocq

    From left: Head of History Dr Heather Wolffram, Master’s student Jane Comeau and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the College of Arts Professor Jonathan Le Cocq

Comeau won the Gerald Hunt Prize for best Honours Research Essay and the Joan Burns Memorial Scholarship in History, which provides a retrospective scholarship for her Honours year, in recognition and support of academic excellence. She also received the College of Arts’ Master’s scholarship in mid-2020.

“I’ve loved history ever since I got my hands on the Horrible Histories books as a child, but I fell into studying History by accident,” she says.

“I intended to be an English major but did a third-year internship studying a medieval document called the Canterbury Roll – it all kind of snowballed from there! I love the drama and emotion of history, as well as unearthing very personal and human experiences from wildly different times.”

Exploring medieval paintings on the walls of English churches, Comeau focused on female biblical and religious figures such as St Margaret, St Katherine and Eve.

“Initially, I was interested in looking at how these exceptional women were seen by a wider female audience, but surprisingly, I ended up studying how these paintings of women were used by religious and patriarchal institutions to convey certain messages. Since churchgoers then were largely illiterate, it would have been very difficult to try and recover their perspective.

“I found it fascinating that the female saints I studied weren’t actually supposed to be role models. If you look into the stories of these women, they actually defy gender roles in a way that would be completely inappropriate for the average medieval woman. When their stories were illustrated for such a public and uneducated audience, they became far more violent and dramatised – almost in the style of a superhero comic strip – perhaps to prevent the audience from identifying too closely with the story.”

Comeau was able to take her love of history into a work experience environment through the PACE [Professional & Community Engagement] programme at UC, however she still has a range of employment options to consider.

“I worked for the Canterbury Museum, ensuring that data on a collection of watercolour paintings by New Zealand artists was up to current standards. I was able to handle some beautiful 19th century landscapes. Unfortunately, the internship was disrupted because of COVID, but the time I was able to spend there was still fantastic. I loved seeing the behind-the-scenes operations of the museum, and how they store, catalogue and track their thousands of items. I was able to watch staff work with everything from bird bones to weapons and antique vases. It has definitely prompted me to consider a career in the museum field.

“I’m having a difficult time deciding on a future career path. I’ve looked into careers in teaching, library and museum work, administration, writing, and research, but I’m taking it day by day. I would have liked to travel, but COVID has made me better appreciate the history that New Zealand has to offer and so I’m looking more in that field as well.”

UC Head of History Dr Heather Wolffram said it was a pleasure to recognise Comeau’s achievements, alongside 27 other students, at the History Awards Ceremony.

“Jane and her fellow prizewinners would be considered remarkable scholars in any year, but given the particular challenges of 2020 they deserve special praise for their flexibility and resilience; skills that History and the Humanities more generally help students to develop.”

The award-winners are:

Philosophy

Department of Philosophy First Year Award for Excellence

  • Katelyn Farrell
  • Charlotte Duff
  • Jessica Price
  • Micheal King
  • Samuel Donaldson

David Novitz Prize:

  • Harry Whitnall

Classics

Alabaster Prize:

  • Mitchell Rowe and Natalija Trombitas

Art History & Theory

Outstanding Achievement at 100-level:

  • Henrietta Bullen

Outstanding Achievement at 200-level:

  • Ruth Jeffs

Outstanding Achievement at 300-level:

  • Kate Kitchingham

Outstanding Achievement at 400-level:

  • Ngaire Gardner

History

Graduate Women Canterbury Trust awarded to the top students in each 100-Level History course:

  • HIST127 – Chiara Dunlop
  • HIST133 – Isabella Jack
  • HIST136 – Hayden Keenan
  • HIST137 – Asta Hinton

Outstanding Achievement Overall in First Year History: 

  • Hayden Keenan

Outstanding Achievement Overall in Second Year History:

  • Ian Harris and Dante Sudilovsky

Neville Phillips Memorial Prize:

  • Ethan Evans and Josiah Morgan

Outstanding Achievement Overall in Third Year History:

  • Nicole Ashby and Paris Thornley

John Cookson Prize and Frieda Looser Prize (2) for Top third year students:

  • David Moseley and Charlotte Hadfield

Janet Holm Prize for Outstanding Achievement by a History major in New Zealand History: 

  • Charlotte Hadfield                     

Joan Burns Memorial Scholarship for Honours (awarded to a 2020 Honours student, based on 2019 undergraduate work):

  • Jane Comeau

Top History Honours Student:

  • Elizabeth Everingham

The Gerald Hunt Prize (for best 480 Research Essay): 

  • Jane Comeau

The Sir James Hight Memorial Prize (top MA student):

  • Helen Brown