Fellow: Awarded 2013
Field of Study: Medieval and Renaissance Literature
Competition: US & Canada
Karen Sullivan is Irma Brandeis Professor of Romance Culture and Literature at Bard College. A native of Boston, she studied comparative literature at Bryn Mawr College and the University of California, Berkeley, before coming to Bard. She works on the clash between the conception of truth held by the “clerics” (clerici), or learned men of the Middle Ages, who wrote historical and religious texts in Latin for other learned men, and that held by the varied populations (clerical and lay, male and female, bourgeois and aristocratic) who composed literary texts in the vernacular for popular audiences. Her first book, The Interrogation of Joan of Arc (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), examined the encounter between the clerical interrogators and Joan of Arc during Joan’s trial for heresy in Rouen in 1431. Her second book, Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2005)—the winner of the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Literature—juxtaposed chroniclers, preachers, and inquisitors, who condemned heretics as people who used ambiguities of words in order to avoid prosecution, and the authors of troubadour lyric, Arthurian romance, and fabliaux, who celebrated similar figures of epistemological uncertainty in their pages; he who denies the validity of a single, definitive reading of a text, as a heretic did, becomes, in a sense, the hero of literature, which invites multiple and inconclusive interpretations. Her third book, The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors (University of Chicago Press, 2011; rpt. in paperback, 2013), contrasted preachers and inquisitors who, seeing themselves as loving the “simple people” (simplices) within the Church, were impatient to burn at the stake the heretics who threatened to seduce these simple people into doctrinal error, and clerics who, seeing themselves as loving the heretics themselves, were willing to wait for these sinners to return to the Church, even if they led other Christians astray in the meantime. By putting historical and religious texts into conversation with literary ones, Professor Sullivan not only articulates the different conceptions of truth in play in the Middle Ages, but also demonstrates the effects these different conceptions of truth produced in people’s lived experience. In a context where truth was so often associated with Catholic orthodoxy and untruth with a heretical deviation from that doctrine, she connects the desire for truth and the perpetration of violence.
In her current project, The Danger of Romance, Professor Sullivan turns her attention to the clash between the historical and religious authors who rejected Arthurian romance in the Middle Ages and the literary authors who embraced this genre. During the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when the tales of King Arthur, Lancelot of the Lake, and the Holy Grail were first composed, clerics like William of Newburgh, Aelred of Rievaulx, and Caesarius of Heisterbach criticized this literature for encouraging readers to reject reality in favor of fantasy, truth in favor of fiction, and, by extension, actual, ordinary life in favor of an imagined, extraordinary existence. These clerics viewed romances as lies, pleasant, but profitless, which distracted readers from the harsh but profitable truths of Holy Scripture. During these same centuries, however, the authors of Arthurian romance implicitly defended their works against these attacks. To claim that reality is necessarily limited to the conventions of realism, such as mediocre characters, tepid emotions, and everyday events, they maintained, is to impoverish the very notion of reality by denying that there can ever be heroes and heroines, passionate love, and marvelous occurrences. If their romances are as pleasant as they are, these authors insisted, it is because they tell, not lies, but truths, though truths happier than those other texts choose to recognize. By setting into dialogue the historical and religious texts which criticized romance and the literary texts themselves, Professor Sullivan shows how Arthurian romance makes a case for the truth value of its fictions and, in doing so, makes a case for the truth value of imaginative literature in general.