A long and storied history of giving: A&S alumna Catherine Monahan on the value of the humanities

February 28, 2020 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

For Catherine Monahan, managing editor of the Dictionary of Old English (DOE), giving is both personal and professional. She’s not only a member of the DOE team, but has been donating to it for more than 25 years.

“I think it’s a worthwhile project,” she says, adding that it’s often a challenge to secure funding for humanities research.

“People think that dictionaries and lexicography are boring,” she says. “What I find interesting about this project is that we have one copy of every Old English text that’s available in the world — everything from poetry to church sermons to legal texts. It's a fascinating window into the culture of the Anglo-Saxon period and it's interesting because human nature hasn't changed.”

Monahan believes strongly in the value of the humanities. As a Faculty of Arts & Science undergraduate student and member of St. Michael’s College, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in English literature. Monahan also holds two graduate degrees from the University of Toronto: a master’s in library science and a master’s in medieval studies. Both of her parents are U of T graduates as well.

“There’s a history in the family of studies in the humanities, particularly in the area of medieval studies,” she says. “I want to continue to support that area.”

As a graduate student, Monahan worked in the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies library before accepting an editor position in the institute’s publications department. Later, she moved into an editor role at the DOE.

While a valuable resource for scholars, the DOE also attracts individuals outside of academia — including fans of The Lord of The Rings. “J.R.R. Tolkien was originally an Anglo-Saxonist, so some of the words and ideas in his books come directly from Old English.”

The walking trees, for example, are called “ents” — the Old English word for “giant.”

“It sparks an interest in people who don’t have any background in medieval studies or lexicography because it touches them at a point of culture that is quite well known,” she says, adding that it’s discouraging that few universities still teach Old English. “It’s the basis of modern language and expands our understanding of modern culture.”

Monahan’s giving isn’t just about the DOE. “It’s an indication of my support for the value of humanities education.”