Gillian Adler

BA, Barnard College. MA, University of York, UK. PhD, University of California, Los Angeles. Special interest in Chaucer, Old English and Middle English literature, the history of the book, medieval hagiography, mysticism, and historiography. Author of essays published in the Journal of Medieval Religious Culture, Arthuriana, Medieval Feminist Forum, Carte Italiane, and Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her current book project, “Chaucer and the Ethics of Time,” pursues intersecting questions of narrative time and the relationship between temporality and ethics in Chaucer’s poetry.SLC, 2018–

Undergraduate Courses 2020-2021

Literature

Time and Literature

Advanced , Seminar—Spring

“What then is time?” St. Augustine wrote. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Time is elusive. The ticking clock and the calendar visualize the present moment becoming a future one, yet this arrow-like time conflicts with Augustine’s notion that time exists within the mind. If time is not an external phenomenon but, instead, our memories, sensations, and anticipation, then how real is time, and how can we measure it? Is it then possible to obstruct or delay the passage of time? Literary narratives can help us explore these questions and think about various ideas of human time. While we read our watches to determine where we exist in relation to current or prospective events, we often read narratives to learn about human experience and, thus, about human time. In them, we can discover diverse categories—sacred time, social time, and performative time, to name a few—that imagine experience as anything but neat, linear, and sequential. This course will consider the forms and concepts of time as they are represented in the Middle Ages and beyond. Reading medieval romances and dream visions, we will grapple with the temporality of subjective and imaginary worlds but also ponder how the different pauses, suspensions, compressions, accelerations, and simultaneities of medieval texts connect with later physical and metaphysical notions of time, including Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being” and Joycean epiphanies. Analyzing time-related critical texts, including Paul Ricoeur’s prodigious Time and Narrative, we will see how these concepts form an essential framework in which to read literary narratives from the Middle Ages to Modernism.

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From Singers to Scribes: Storytelling and Authorship in Medieval England

Open , Lecture—Spring

What did it mean to be an author in medieval England? The author was not necessarily the person putting pen to page. In fact, many of the greatest medieval English works survive by virtue of oral poets and professional scribes, whose control over the creation of an authentic text was often limited or, at least, concealed. Furthermore, the Latin term auctor primarily referred to the ancient poets and Latin Church fathers, whose writings were revered as authoritative, rather than to the men and women who composed literary works in the Middle Ages. The ambiguity of the author is the starting point for this course, which considers medieval texts in the contexts of composition and transmission. We will think about the role of the scop, or poet-singer, in our study of Old English poetry and the role of both monastic and professional scribes in the preservation of texts throughout the Middle Ages. At the same time, we will examine a growing tendency to celebrate the creator of a text in later medieval literature. Authorial self-awareness and self-fashioning especially pertain to the development of mysticism and to courtly culture. Examining these diverse contexts of composition, we will discover how literary form, the original manuscripts, and the editing tradition interact to shape our sense of medieval literary history. Applying critical theories on the concept of the author, we will read works including, but not limited to, Beowulf, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, Langland’s Piers Plowman, and Chaucer’s Canterbury TalesThis course will involve group conferences for students who take it for five credits, but students will have the option to take the lecture for three credits, omitting the conference requirement.

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Dante’s Encyclopedia: The Comedy and Intertextuality

Open , Seminar—Fall

Dante’s Divine Comedy is, perhaps, the most creative encyclopedic work of the Middle Ages. Presenting the story of a unique religious pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, this epic poem envelops readers in a comprehensive education on everything from philosophy and theology to astronomy and geometry. The work teems with information on virtue and vice, as a reader of medieval spiritual texts might expect, but also surprises with debates on secular and sacred love, political theory, local and universal histories, and inquiries of ethics, epistemology, and ontology. This course will explore Dante’s “circle of knowledge” as it emerges through the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of his poem. The study of intertextual figures will help to illuminate the subtle ways in which Dante promotes his understanding of the world. Works—including not only the three canticles of Dante’s Comedy but also excerpts from his New Life (Vita Nuova), Monarchy (De Monarchia), On Eloquence in the Vernacular (De Vulgari eloquentia), and The Banquet (Convivio)—will be read in translation.

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Previous Courses

First-Year Studies: The Literature of Exile from Ancient Rome to Renaissance England

Open , FYS—Year

The course will examine representations of exile and diaspora in literary texts from ancient epic to Renaissance drama. We will examine authors who were displaced from their communities, such as the antique Roman poet Ovid and the medieval Italian poet Dante, and explore how they expressed anxieties about ostracism and distance through both autobiographical and fictional forms. We also will discuss how they used their works to leverage the physical experience of exile into more empowering perspectives and positions of distance. Reading epics—including Virgil’s Aeneid, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and Milton’s Paradise Lost—we will consider the possibilities of freedom, discovery, and transformation in exile. In these narratives, exile has the potential to instigate political foundation, creative production, and spiritual discovery. Finally, this course will look at the metaphors of exile used by early female authors, including Christine de Pizan and Margery Kempe, both to articulate and to subvert positions of gendered marginalization. Through the study of a range of literary texts, then, we will see how authors found ways of legitimizing themselves or their characters in the face of ostracism and displacement. In the process, students will develop their ability to analyze literature and cultivate a sense of literary history, especially “genealogies” traceable across ancient and medieval texts. Students will meet with the instructor for individual conferences on a biweekly basis over the course of the year. During the first semester, individual conferences will also alternate with biweekly group conference meetings, in which students will find opportunities to hone their research skills and study course material within different theoretical frameworks that complicate and develop close readings of texts. Individual conference projects should be semester-long; therefore, students will complete two projects over the course of the year. Possible conference topics include the study of a particular ancient, medieval, or Renaissance author or literary text pertaining to the course and of interest to the student. Conference topics may include the adventures of medieval romance, the symbolic landscapes and seascapes of early British and European literature, utopia and dystopia in early modern literature, gendered understandings of exile as marginalization, religious interpretations of exile, and travel narratives—including the works of Ibn Battuta and John Mandeville.

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Love Languages: Amorous Lyric and Narrative in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Open , Lecture—Spring

Some say our idea of romantic love was invented in the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, cultural transformations were prompted by Church reforms in favor of mutual consent and loving marriage, as well as the rise of an aristocracy that valued courtship and chivalry. Contemporary literary works only reinforced new ideals and forms of love. The courtly “love languages” of the medieval era then influenced a phenomenon of Renaissance love poetry. This course will examine the development of amorous lyric and narrative from the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance, focusing on the burgeoning discourses of amour courtois and the rapid popularization of the sonnet form as a medium for declarations of desire—from Dante and Petrarch in Italy to Sir Philip Sidney and Shakespeare in England. The love that emerges in the selected texts may be secretive and illicit but also liberating and empowering, reflecting the author’s complex and sometimes contradictory visions of romance and marriage. We will examine themes of love-suffering, service to the always-distant beloved, and obsessive devotion but also consider the works of female authors who undermine these traditional attributes of courtship and highlight female subjectivity. The idealization of lovers and the emphasis on self-sacrifice in these literary works will indeed prove problematic to our modern understandings of gender roles in relationships in ways that will demonstrate the otherness of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Yet, they also will stress the familiarly transcendent and ennobling effects of love. The belief in the enduring nature of personal bonds will pertain to our discussion of how authors sought to ensure their immortal celebrity through love poetry.

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Chaucer and Literary London

Open , Lecture—Fall

Geoffrey Chaucer is well-known today as the “Father of English Poetry” for his innovative use of Middle English in verse. During his lifetime, however, his reputation was political and social and his presence, local and international. Chaucer’s career as a London civil servant and diplomat was paramount to his poetic vocation. In the House of Fame, he even mocks himself for sitting at his desk after work to compose poetry each day. This course will investigate Chaucer’s works in a biographical and insular context, reading his poetry in relation to his 14th-century urban milieu and to significant late medieval events such as the Black Plague and the Great Rising of 1381. We will study not only the dream vision poems, Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales, but also the works of other so-called Ricardian Poets of Chaucer’s age to explore more broadly the thematic preoccupations of London writers. Such topics include authority through authorship, dreams and the imagination, sexuality and the tradition of antifeminism, as well as hierarchies of power and the changing class structure. Examining these topics through a range of critical lenses, we will see how Chaucer and his friends dramatized controversial conversations of the time through the vernacular tongue—not only staking a new claim for English literariness but also making those conversations available to us as modern readers.

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Related Disciplines

Holy Lives: Spirituality, Saints, and the Cult of Celebrity in the Middle Ages

Open , Seminar—Spring

The saint in the Middle Ages fostered a cult of celebrity. The rise of pilgrimage, the pervasive fascination with relics, and sensational tales of both martyrdom and miracle popularized saints across England and the Continent. This course will focus on stories interested in the heroism, intercession, and sacrifice of saintly figures, with readings to include Latin, Old English, and Middle English saints’ lives, as well as devotional narratives. We will consider how the paradox of saints—disembodied yet concretely present, at a liminal position between Heaven and Earth—might have transformed conceptions of the spiritual life. Taking a gendered approach, we will pay special attention to the narratives of heroic women saints and their reading communities. This course will encourage visits to see reliquaries and other saintly artifacts housed in New York to complement our classroom study of the textual and material remains of saints.

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Related Disciplines

Literary Visions From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Open , Seminar—Year

In dream books and visionary narratives from antiquity to the Middle Ages, characters travel through imaginative alternate worlds that test the boundaries of ordinary human experience and provide insights into their own realities. Such narratives of mental adventure and wonder inspired elaborate dream theories and attributed great authority to the poet’s subjectivity. This course will examine the tradition of literary visions, from Cicero’s Dream of Scipio to the late medieval poem Pearl, using an interdisciplinary method that situates texts within their historical, theological, and manuscript contexts. Our study will highlight the formal conventions of the vision genre but also will reveal how many authors resisted a circumscribed form to explore various contentious political, social, and religious ideas.

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Related Disciplines