Gillian Adler

BA, Barnard College. MA, University of York, UK. PhD, University of California, Los Angeles. Special interests in Chaucer, medieval English and European literature, narrative temporality, and philosophies of time. SLC, 2018-

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020


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.


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.


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.

Related Disciplines

Previous Courses

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.

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.

Related Disciplines