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September 21, 2006

   

New Faculty: Jamie Taylor Interrogates 'Truth'
in Witness Testimony of Medieval England

photo of Betsy Gauthier

Assistant Professor of English Jamie Taylor studies accounts of trial testimony from the Middle Ages, but she didn't start graduate school with the intention of being a medievalist. She was interested in 19th-century American literature, particularly slave narratives. A distribution requirement "dragged me kicking and screaming into a course on Chaucer," Taylor says, "and I was hooked."

"First of all, Chaucer is really funny," she says. "And I realized that medieval English literature tends to foreground the questions I was most interested in, about the interaction of oral traditions with the written word. Ultimately, I found that studying a literature and culture that are so different from my own gave me a clearer view of some of the important conceptual problems that are common to the present and the deep past."

Taylor, a native of suburban Chicago, did her undergraduate work in English and Spanish literatures at Stanford University. After earning an M.A. in English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she completed her Ph.D. in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania with a dissertation titled "Fictions of Evidence: Proof and Persuasion in Late-Medieval Literature."

Witness testimony from medieval England, she says, exposes a persistent problem in written representations of events: "Whose voice are we listening to? In England at that time, the vernacular was Middle English, but the official language of the courts was Latin or French. Accounts of trial testimony were written by scribes who translated defendants' words from English to Latin and then read them aloud. Scribes were permitted to omit things that they found boring or redundant and to comment on the testimony. So these documents that purport to be factual, faithful representations of witnesses' voices are actually the products of many hands."

Viewed in this light, Taylor says, "fact" begins to look a lot more like "fiction," where the concept of authorship is also complicated by a multiplicity of voices within a single text. "In The Canterbury Tales, for instance, there are a lot of figures standing between Chaucer and the reader. The tales are told by characters, and Chaucer borrowed stories and conventions from earlier literary and oral traditions. My students often begin sentences with, 'Chaucer says ...' and I say, 'Wait a second — is it really Chaucer who's saying that?' Reading Chaucer doesn't necessarily tell you very much about who Chaucer is."

This semester, Taylor is teaching a course on The Canterbury Tales as well as a C-Sem on technologies of writing (Taylor collaborated on the latter course's syllabus with Professor and Chair of English Katherine Rowe, who is teaching another section). Next semester, she plans a course on women and law in the Middle Ages and a second titled "Travel and Transgression."

Her appointment at Bryn Mawr marks Taylor's first association with a small liberal-arts college, and she is enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching here. "When I came here to visit, I was so impressed with the students — they were smart, certainly, but more importantly they were interested in the world and in participating in the world actively through this kind of education. That's really rare in colleges, and it's something I really believe in," she notes. "Most people think that medieval literature is an esoteric pastime, but I honestly believe that you can use medieval English literature — its interest in how to represent 'other' cultures, its use of several languages all at once, and so on — to conceptualize what it means to exist in a world that is increasingly global and culturally diverse."

 

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