Nicholas Watson

Nicholas Watson

Fellow: Awarded 2008
Field of Study: Medieval Literature

Competition: US & Canada

Harvard University

Nicholas Watson is a Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and the department’s director of graduate studies and the chair of the Medieval Studies Committee. He is an internationally known medievalist whose principal interest lies in Christian religious texts written in Middle English and Anglo-Norman French—the vernacular of the day. For Mr. Watson, these texts provide windows through which readers can catch a broader, if still fragmented, view of the culture of the time.

Among his many interests within this area are mystical writings, writings by women, historiography, magic, and visionary literature. But he is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking concept of vernacular theology, which he first articulated in “Censorship and Cultural Change in Late Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409,” published in Speculum in 1995; his theory set off a lively debate, led him to organize a major international conference on the subject in 1999, and spurred yet another conference on the topic, to be held at Oxford University in 2009. Mr. Watson is also coeditor of and contributor to The Idea of the Vernacular: Literary Theory and Practice in Late Medieval England, 1280-1530 (Penn State UP/Exeter UP, 1999) and The Vulgar Tongue: Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularities (Penn State UP, 2004), which he edited with Fiona Somerset and for which he provided the general introduction and introductions to its sections. His Guggenheim Fellowship is supporting his work on a study tentatively titled Balaam’s Ass: Vernacular Theology and the Secularization of England, 1050-1550.

Born in England, Mr. Watson received a B.A. in English literature from Cambridge University (1980) and an M.Phil. in medieval studies from Oxford University (1984). He continued his studies in medieval English at the University of Toronto, where he was a Connaught Fellow, Fellow of Massey College, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellow. His dissertation won the department’s Woodhouse Prize and was a factor in his receiving the Polanyi Prize in Literature in 1990, Ontario’s premier research award for young scholars. He was a postdoctoral Fellow at Memorial University (1987-89) and a Canada Research Fellow at McMaster University (1989-90) before taking up an appointment as assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, where he remained for ten years before joining the faculty of Harvard in 2001.


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