Professor of English Language and Literature
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Sabbatical Fall 2013
Most medievalists are necessarily comparatists because most medieval writers were multi-lingual, and I am no exception. I earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in medieval studies from the University at California, Berkeley, in the mid-1980s and wrote a dissertation about the oral and literary affiliations of medieval English romances. Theories about how to understand the oral traditions that nourished medieval written texts were flying thick and fast at Berkeley at the time, providing a stimulating environment in which to write. Before Berkeley, I was an English major at Smith, and had the bad judgment to drop out of General Literature 291 (then a year-course), after the first semester. (At the time, I was only willing to study literature that was very old.) When I returned to Smith to join the English department in 1987, there on my teaching assignment, unrequested by me, was the second half of Gen Lit.! Someone knew, I thought, that I had unfinished business with that course. With great pleasure, I've taught comparative literature courses ever since, including Women Writers of the Middle Ages (with my colleague Eglal Doss-Quinby) and Arthurian Literature of the Middle Ages.
I've continued to think and write about the cultural impact of private reading and about the survival of oral modes of thought and expression in medieval written texts. My book on Middle English romance explores these issues; it's called Writing Aloud: Storytelling in Fourteenth-Century England. I'm currently writing an article about an interesting English romance called Athelston that didn't make it into the book, and I'm writing about one of the first known readers of Chaucer's poetry, a scribe named Thomas Usk who may have been one of Chaucer's own copyists. My next book will be about high and low culture as represented in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.