What did Jo Rowling Study at University? French? Classics? Both?

This morning I was greeted with a curt correction in a comment box to something I wrote in 2010, ‘Why is the Latin in Harry Potter so Lousy?‘ In that rather lengthy and involved post, I asserted in my conclusion that “Ms. Rowling was a French, not a Classics Major at the University of Exeter.” A reader more familiar than I with life at University in the United Kingdom, a reader with the unfortunate given name of “I am a happy sock,” reports this is not the case.

Um, no, she wasn’t an anything ‘major’ as UK universities don’t work on the American major/minor system. Her degree was equally divided between French and Classics.

This correction is unfortunate in that it, as is too often the case in comment boxes, alas, reduces a rather thoughtful post to a single line, the rest found not worthy of comment. It is unfortunate, too, because it is wrong.

Not in its declaration that UK colleges do not have ‘majors’ and ‘minors’ as American schools do, but in the assertion that Rowling’s degree was “equally divided between French and Classics.” As I have recently discovered, this is not the case. Rowling in 1998 and the University of Exeter Classics Department tell us that the young JKR did not study Latin and Greek as languages at Exeter at all.

1998 2Before getting to those statements, let’s review the confused internet wisdom on this subject. From what is stated with certainty online, Rowling took a degree in French, in Classics, or in French and Classics.

From the Gradesaver biography, we learn the degree was in French:

In 1983, Rowling graduated from Wyedean and began attending Exeter University for her BA in French. Although Rowling wanted to study English, her parents convinced her that a career as a bilingual secretary would give her more stability than a job in literature could.

From the venerable Wikipedia, ‘French and Classics:’

In 1982, Rowling took the entrance exams for Oxford University but was not accepted and read for a B.A. in French and Classics at the University of Exeter. [Conversations with Rowling, p. 34] Martin Sorrell, a French professor at Exeter, remembers “a quietly competent student, with a denim jacket and dark hair, who, in academic terms, gave the appearance of doing what was necessary”. Rowling recalls doing little work, preferring to listen to The Smiths and read Dickens and Tolkien. After a year of study in Paris, Rowling graduated from Exeter in 1986.

From a partisan Classics professor and blogger, of course, it is a “degree in classics:”

By now most people are familiar with J.K.Rowling’s rags-to-riches story of how she went from being a single mother on welfare to becoming one of the wealthiest women in the world. Most classics majors probably know that J. K. Rowling graduated from college with a degree in classics.

1998From The Telegraph in the UK:

After the position of Head Girl at Wyedean School and College, she graduated from the University of Exeter with a BA in French and Classics, and then worked as a researcher for Amnesty International.

And Rowling herself? From the Harvard commencement address:

[My parents] hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

But what does the University of Exeter say, and, specifically, their Classics department? From Pegasus: Journal of the University of Exeter Department of Classics and Ancient History; Issue 41, 1998, p 27:

Joanne Rowling read French with additional Greek and Roman Studies in the 1980s.

harvardThis entire piece that Ms Rowling wrote for Pegasus — ‘What Was the Name of that Nymph Again? or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled‘ — in fact is a description of her taking courses not requiring any Greek and Latin, through which she “sleepwalked.” A telling paragraph:

I arrived at Exeter enrolled for joint honours French and German, but it soon became apparent to me that what German and I needed was a clean break, with no empty promises about staying friends. It was then that I turned thoughtfully towards the Classics department. Somewhere along those unknown corridors, it was whispered, lurked a subsidiary course which went by the name of “Greek and Roman Studies,” and the word on the street was that one did not need any Greek or Latin to join up. This was fortunate, as my Latin consisted of the word cave [Beware!], which I had gleaned from the Molesworth books [satirical English schoolboy children’s books, from which Rowling quotes at the end of her Pegasus memoir: “as any fule kno”].

Forgive me, IAmAHappySock, for thinking, translated into American vernacular, that means she ‘majored’ in French, the subject she studied at Exeter and in Paris, which she used in her Amnesty International work dealing with countries in French speaking Africa, and which language she taught in Scotland on returning from Portugal.
A feature biographical sketch in The Scotsman confirms this reading of Rowling’s note and the Exeter Classics faculty’s:

Siouxie SouixLecturers remember Rowling as nervous and insecure, but a fellow student, Yvette Cowles, told Sean Smith, her biographer, that she was popular and striking. “She wore long skirts and used to have this blue denim jacket she liked to wear. Jo was very shapely and she had this big hair, kind of back-combed and lacquered, and lots of heavy eyeliner [per her favorite rock star, siouxsie sioux] . I think she was quite popular with the guys.” In her first year she signed up for French and Classics but an attitude to academia best described as minimum work, maximum fun led to her abandoning Classics after she failed to register properly for an exam. [emphasis added]

‘Classics’ as most understand it, of course, is a subject requiring Latin and Greek language study, which was not really at all what Rowling was about in school. Rowling took classes in the Classics department, certainly, but, according to that department and her own writing, only ‘Greek and Roman Studies.’ Rowling’s degree was not “equally divided between French and Classics.” at least not according to the University of Exeter Classics faculty, not according to the just published Joanne Rowling as she wrote for fellow Exeter alumni/ae in 1998, and not according to her fellow students who spoke to The Scotsman in 2003.
Which my 2010 post says, though I did not have the Pegasus article then as surety. In answer to a reader’s question about the weakness of Rowling’s Latin because of her father’s complaint about same, I wrote:

BBC Desert DiscsTell him instead that Ms. Rowling was a French, not a Classics Major at the University of Exeter and that she taught French not Latin to pay her flat rent before becoming a gazillionaire. Her Latin, consequently, you can say, is the remnant of her atrophied Comprehensive School classics instruction and whatever side courses she may have taken at Exeter.

It turns out that she probably took no Latin classes at University level but simple Classics Civilization courses, as they are called in the United States. If anything, by suggesting Rowling “minored” in Classical Languages at Uni, I far overstated the case.

Why would Ms Rowling in Conversations say her degree was in ‘French and Classics’ and in her Harvard commencement address not mention French but imply by neglect of clarification that all  her time was spent conferring with the Ancients on the Classics corridor?  Because there’s a lot more intellectual gravitas, especially at Harvard, for a degree in Classics, understood always as “the study of Greek and Latin,” than in Classical Studies. Did you know that the Harvard Commencement features a talk given entirely in Latin? Here is a video of the talk that was given in 2007 on ‘John Harvard as Jedi Knight.’

Just sayin,’ Mr or Ms Happy Sock. Thank you, though, for pointing out that UK schools don’t major or minor, per se. I’ll try be more careful in the future when projecting US language onto UK practice.

Now back to Nigel Molesworth as a model for Hogwarts…

Update: Rowling never studied Latin, it turns out, at least not in a classroom. From her ‘Scholastic Chat’ in 2000:

Question: Ms. Rowling, for being fictional books, the Harry Potter books have a great grasp of the Latin language. I have noticed that many, if not most, of the names and incantations are of Latin heritage. How much research does it take to give these books their Latin heritage?

J.K. Rowling responds: My Latin, such as it is, is self-taught. I enjoy feeling that wizards would continue to use this dead language in their everyday life.


  1. waynestauffer says


  2. KaPow!!!!!

Speak Your Mind