View all news

International essay prize distinctions for Theology students

Fe Torrance (left) and Emily Rhodes

Fe Torrance (left) and Emily Rhodes

28 April 2010

Two students from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Fe Torrance and Emily Rhodes, have been honoured by the judges of a prestigious international essay prize competition.

Fe Torrance won the national prize for the Year Two category of the 2009 Leeds Centre for Dante Studies Essay Prizes. Her essay considered the implications of the words inscribed over the Gate of Hell – including the renowned phrase, 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here' – for an interpretation of the Inferno.

The three judges – from the universities of Leeds, London and Warwick – said Torrance’s essay 'offered an original and often incisive treatment of a difficult question; the essay was well balanced and well judged throughout'. They liked Torrance’s work because it used a specific nine-line passage 'to raise questions about how Dante's Comedy is meant to be read, considering the metaliterary dimensions of the episode, rather than just considering the passage’s implications within the text'. They also 'liked the personal touches which enlivened the argument.’

Emily Rhodes competed in the competition's Finalist category, with an essay on how Dante's presentation of non-human life forms, in the opening cantos of the Inferno, shed light on Dante's understanding of humanity. The organiser of the competition, Dr Claire Honess (Co-Director of the Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds), wrote that Rhodes' essay was 'an excellent piece of work', and stated that 'both the student and the Department' were commended by the judges.

The competition is highly selective. In order for an essay to be considered, it can only be presented to the judges by a university department in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. These departments may submit only one second-year essay and one finalist essay. To date, Bristol's Department of Theology and Religious Studies has been the only participating department, from any university, that is not a department of Italian Studies.

Dr Carolyn Muessig, Reader in Medieval Religion and Head of Subject for the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, emphasised the diversity of units offered by the Department: 'We pride ourselves on presenting our students with a curriculum that is not simply intellectually challenging and coherent, but that also offers students the possibility of studying subject areas that many other rival departments ignore.'

'One example lies with medieval and early modern Italian religious culture. Over the past three years, we have offered units that have focused in this area: "From Hell to Heaven: Medieval Italian Spirituality" introduced students to saints' lives and to religious literature; "The Religious World of Dante" led students through a reading of Dante's Inferno; and "Miracles in the Christian Tradition" actually uses medieval Italian sources for the bulk of its texts.'

George Ferzoco, Research Fellow in Medieval Religious Culture and departmental Teaching Fellow, has offered these units to Year Two students and to finalists. He stated: 'Bristol students have enjoyed discovering a range of texts and images of the highest quality and the greatest interest: the Rule of St Benedict, the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, the lives of St Francis, and Giotto's art are just some of the things we have studied together.'

'The students of "The Religious World of Dante" were captivated by their reading of the Inferno. Not only were several of their essays exceptionally good, but they all enjoyed participating in a marathon reading of the Inferno, during which they took turns reading aloud, in order, each of the work's 34 cantos.'

The reading was held in the Catholic Chaplaincy and took about six hours to complete. An article and podcast about the Dante marathon reading by Fr Robert King of the Catholic Chapliancy is available online.

Fe Torrance is now a final-year student in the Department. With a particular interest in philosophical aspects of theology, she has chosen to return to the Department after graduation to read for an MPhil under the supervision of Dr Oliver Crisp, Reader in Theology. Torrance said: 'Next year I will be looking at how human and divine wills function in scholastic doctrine, particularly focusing on Aquinas' intellectualism and Duns Scotus' voluntarism. Hopefully I will be able to bring in the views of some more “literary” writers in as well, in order to see how scholarly trends affect their writing: cue Dante!'

Emily Rhodes graduated in July 2009 with a first-class degree. She also gained the prestigious Anne Spencer Memorial Prize (awarded for excellence in the field of women's studies in relation to the study of Christianity). She is currently a postgraduate student in the Department (under the supervision of Dr Muessig) on an MPhil, where she is analysing Catherine of Siena's perception of the afterlife; this work is aided by the University's Read-Tuckwell Postgraduate Scholarship, serving the scholarly study of human immortality. She is set to continue her research further, by aiming for a doctorate – still in the Department – on Catherine of Siena and her relationship with the cult of saints.

A major factor for both students in choosing to remain at Bristol has been their positive experience with the Department. Rhodes said: 'Medieval Italy has fascinated and captivated me throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The department at Bristol has always gone beyond to support me in furthering this interest.' Torrace added: 'The department is brilliant! Students are offered a fantastic range of units which are enhanced by the tutors' personal research. Lecturers have always been very supportive of all of my work, especially in allowing me to take units in a direction that I want to. They also encourage participation in departmental events outside of normal teaching.'

Professor Paul Williams, incoming Head of Subject, summed up the views of the entire Department in declaring: 'We are enormously proud of Fe and Emily’s achievement, and also of a teaching staff here who really know how to help and encourage students to achieve their very best.'

Edit this page