Music 036: The Medieval Swatties Take Europe

Finals week at Swarthmore can look quite different for each student. Some might have exams and lab reports due; others might have research presentations and group poster sessions. My finals week this past spring included many of these evaluations, followed by a trip to England and France with one of my music courses.

Our class at Ste. Chapelle in Paris

Before I tell you about our travels, let’s rewind to course registration in the fall of 2022. I was scrolling through the course catalog when I came across a class, Music 036, titled “Contesting Darkness: Music, Sound, and Place in Gothic Europe”. I was immediately intrigued. I clicked on the course description and saw that we’d be discussing medieval music and its cultural and historical contexts across Europe. Since I was also studying off-campus in London at the time, I thought it would be a perfect way to expand on all I had experienced abroad and learn more about the history of the places I had visited in a more academic setting.

It wasn’t until after I registered for the course that I realized it included a twelve-day trip at the end of the semester. My ten classmates and I would have the opportunity to spend six days in London, three days in Normandy, and three days in Paris visiting the sites we learned about in class, all paid for by the College.

Yes, you read that right. We got to traverse England and France for free.

During the semester, we had some fascinating discussions about cathedrals, wars, life in monasteries, and even gender and queerness, all in the context of their relation to medieval music. Then, after all of our other finals were finished, with our passports in hand and Swarthmore-funded stipends in our bank accounts, we embarked across the Atlantic.

Arriving at Liverpool Street Station in London

Over the course of our trip, we became fully immersed in the music, history, and communities that we had thus far only seen on paper and powerpoint slides. Actually walking in the gardens and abbeys that medieval musicians performed in was such a surreal experience, and it gave me a completely different perspective on how performance, architecture, and geography all intersected to produce such significant musical developments.

Outside of expanding on what we had learned in class, I got the unique opportunity to revisit some places I had seen while abroad the previous semester. I found it incredibly insightful to hear my classmates’ perspectives and interests as we explored and re-explored the locations I knew and loved; it really deepened my understanding of how each of our nuanced backgrounds contributed to a different experience of music and culture.

At this point, you might be wondering how students can even get involved in such unique opportunities. Swarthmore offers a variety of courses that foster connections with the broader community. Many classes involve working with the Scott Arboretum and the nature surrounding campus; courses offered through the Tri-Co Philly Program bring together students from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore for a class in Philly every week; still other classes offer field placements for students to learn about clinical psychology or the Philadelphia educational system.

A select few classes involve a longer trip, either during Fall Break or Spring Break or at the end of the semester. These are generally offered in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, but they’ve also been offered in subjects like biology, classics, and, in my case, music. The College aims to make all of these external opportunities as accessible as possible, so all course-related costs — including transit, food, and any extra course materials — are fully covered. Courses like Music 036, alongside all of the other community-oriented classes, allow students from all backgrounds to take what they’ve learned and turn campus, Philadelphia, and the world into their classroom.