Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay

Fellow: Awarded 2014
Field of Study: Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Competition: US & Canada

New York University

Born and educated in the United Kingdom, I have researched and taught the literatures of medieval France in universities in Britain and the United States, including at Cambridge, Princeton, and now New York University. My work ranges over the centuries and genres of medieval literature, including heroic poetry, troubadour lyric, courtly literature, hagiography, and didactic literature. A project with Adrian Armstrong to evaluate the role of poetry in transmitting and shaping knowledge after the so-called “rise of prose” of the early thirteenth century won the support of the U.K.’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. Among the books this project produced were its capstone publication, Knowing Poetry. Verse in Medieval France from the Rose to the Rhétoriqueurs (Cornell, 2011), co-authored by myself and Adrian with the help of our research associates, and my Parrots and Nightingales (UPenn, 2013), which studies the role played by quotations from the troubadours in changing European conceptions of poetry.

All my work is driven by a passion for discovering previously unseen connections between premodern and postmodern thinking, both conscious and unconscious, and the conflicts and desires that help to shape it. My fascination with the contemporary resulted in my writing a critical introduction to the thought of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (Polity, 2003). Increasingly I have also become interested in how the Middle Ages mediate between antique culture and modernity. I view courtly literature as poised between antique logic and the logic of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Courtly Contradictions, Stanford, 2001), and didactic poetry as illumined both by scholastic views of universals and particulars, and by postmodern notions of singularity (The Place of Thought, UPenn, 2009).

My project as a Guggenheim Fellow continues in this vein. Animal Skins and Human Selves is a study of medieval bestiaries—illustrated books written mainly in Latin or French that attribute moral and religious significance to animals. My approach to them is inspired equally by contemporary animal studies and philosophies of the post-human, and by antique and medieval thinking about the relations between human beings and other animals. At the heart of my inquiry is the material reality of the parchment pages on which almost all bestiaries were copied. Made from animal skin, parchment closely resembles human skin, and this ambiguity affects the experience of reading a bestiary, so that the reader feels at once entirely distant from, and yet strangely identical with, the creatures on its pages. According to some bestiaries, when a huntsman steals a tiger cub from its mother he throws a mirror in her path to distract her from giving chase; taking her own reflection for the missing cub, she slackens in her pursuit, thereby losing the very cub she believes that she has found. In a similar way, readers of bestiaries are caught off-guard when they imagine they see some other creature in this disconcerting mirror of the page, when what they actually see is themselves.

Photo credit: London, British Library, MS Royal 12.C.xix fol. 28r, detail. Early thirteenth-century Latin bestiary: chapter on the tiger. © British Library Board.

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