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Kellie Robertson

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Professor, English

(301) 405-3810

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Research Expertise

Literature and Science
Medieval and Renaissance

Kellie Robertson writes about medieval literature and culture; her research and teaching are premised on the idea that a return to this earlier intellectual history can help us to better understand our own modern desires and philosophical commitments.

Her most recent book, Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) examines late medieval poetry in the context of its physics, arguing that both domains struggled over how to represent nature in the wake of Aristotelian science. Whether or not nature can speak in an autonomous voice is a problem with which modern environmental politics still struggles, and Robertson’s book argues that there is value in returning to medieval models of how the human was understood in relation to the rest of the nonhuman world.

Her current book project, Yesterday's Weather: Narrative and Premodern Climate Change, looks at how medieval and early modern societies depict the shock of the natural disaster. While the weather is notoriously changeable, human responses to it reveal some surprising consistencies across time, as each era struggles to respond to the durable dilemma of being subject to forces beyond human control. The stories we tell about weather, both then and now, are almost always stories about our own modernity, but it is a modernity experienced as somehow precarious. Looking back at how premoderns wrote about the weather helps us to understand better the stories that we tell ourselves about climate change today.

She is also the author of The Laborer’s Two Bodies: Labor and the ‘Work’ of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500, a book that explores textual and material responses to the first national labor laws. These laws—designed to mitigate the effects of the unprecedented labor shortages following the appearance of the Black Plague—forced writers of all kinds to ask what constituted “true labor,” a question that became nearly unavoidable once work became the object of emphatic legal regulation. She is the editor (with Michael Uebel) of a collection of essays entitled The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England.

Her research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center.

At the University of Maryland, she currently serves as the Director of Graduate Studies for the English Department. 

Publications

Scaling Nature: Microcosm and Macrocosm in Later Medieval Thought

“Scaling Nature: Microcosm and Macrocosm in Later Medieval Thought.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 49:3 (2019): 609-631. [A special issue entitled “Versions of the Natural from Antiquity to Early Modernity,” edited by Sarah Kay and Nicolett

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Late medieval writers were enamored with metaphors of scale for imagining mankind in relation to the rest of the created world. This article takes the minor mundus — the idea of the human as a “lesser world” patterned after the greater, cosmic one — as a point of departure for exploring medieval debates about what it meant to be an embodied human that stood simultaneously apart from and yet within the natural world. It argues that microcosmic thinking was particularly prominent in the tradition of the Roman de la Rose, because it allowed writers to enter into a long-standing conversation about how the physical environment potentially influenced the human will. A scalar logic of nature was embraced by some of these popular writers and rebuffed by others, depending on their view of how the soul was situated with respect to the material body. Revisiting these ubiquitous microcosmic figures gives us insight into sometimes opaque medieval intellectual practice even as it demonstrates how the history of rhetoric can contribute to a broader history of materialism.

Keywords for Today

Co-author (with the Keywords Project), Keywords for Today. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
The book is both a history of English covering much of the most important semantic change in the language and a handbook of current political and ideological debate. In a period when the deluge of information both real and fake makes political understanding more and more difficult, Keywords offers a crucial tool to distinguish meanings and to make judgments. Whether it is demonstrating how recent are the religious meanings of fundamentalism or how complicated is the linguistic history of queer, Keywords for Today constantly intrigues and enlightens.

Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy

Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy. University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2017.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Winner of the Beatrice White Prize from the English Association and the Year's Work in English Studies

Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy

What does it mean to speak for nature? Contemporary environmental critics warn that giving a voice to nonhuman nature reduces it to a mere echo of our own needs and desires; they caution that it is a perverse form of anthropocentrism.

English | Center for Literary and Comparative Studies

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:

From the publisher:

What does it mean to speak for nature? Contemporary environmental critics warn that giving a voice to nonhuman nature reduces it to a mere echo of our own needs and desires; they caution that it is a perverse form of anthropocentrism. And yet nature's voice proved a powerful and durable ethical tool for premodern writers, many of whom used it to explore what it meant to be an embodied creature or to ask whether human experience is independent of the natural world in which it is forged.

Materiality and the Hylomorphic Imagination

“Materiality and the Hylomorphic Imagination.” In Middle English Literature: Criticism and Debate, eds. Holly A. Crocker and D. Vance Smith (Routledge, 2014), 67-375.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Explores the "cultural connotation of physical matter" expressed in gendered hylomorphic metaphors (matter/form) in the Medea accounts of LGW and John Lydgate's "Troy Book," arguing that Chaucer's representation raises questions about "the human as a category," challenges traditional theories of causation, and interrogates the nature of desire.

Authorial Work

“Authorial Work.” In 21st Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2007. 441-458.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Michel Foucault declared that authors became subject to punishment and discourse became transgressive. In the late fourteenth century, both “discourse” and the very act of writing itself were perceived as transgressive, a notion that resulted in a new kind of authorial self-representation in England. By the late fourteenth century, writing had assumed an ambiguous role: while it was the means by which social norms regarding labor were communicated and enforced, it could also be the object of such enforcement. This article explores how late medieval literature came to have authors by looking at literary production in the context of contemporary discourses about daily work. It considers how post-plague labor laws forced authors to situate their work not just between the venerable poles of imitatio and inventio but also between the social polarities of idleness and industry, and how post-plague writers meditated on the value of literary work in the marketplace of work more generally. Using Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales as a lens, it discusses the strategies employed by late medieval writers in positioning their work in a literary landscape characterized by explicit understandings of the material value of labor.

Medieval Things: Materiality, Historicity, and the Premodern Object

“Medieval Things: Materiality, Historicity, and the Premodern Object.” Literature Compass 5 (2008

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
How do we read the premodern representation of objects? This essay surveys recent approaches to medieval literature and culture that focus attention on ‘objecthood’ and the debates that it inspired in the premodern period. This work eschews the exclusive focus on ‘subjectivity’ that was the hallmark of late twentieth‐century poststructuralist accounts of medieval literature in Britain. Subjects do not disappear in these readings, however; they are instead shown to be dialogically produced, always in conversation with things. In offering a genealogy of what has come to be known as ‘thing theory,’ this survey interrogates a number of related (but not necessarily compatible) strains of materialism, including those influenced by Marxism, phenomenology, sociology, and New Historicism. Neither a return to old positivist historical models seeking ‘the thing itself’ nor a retreat from the significant questions posed by poststructuralist theory, these object‐oriented studies all seek ways of approaching narrated things that do not render them merely ‘mirrors’ of human desires or just signs pointing us toward the ‘inner lives’ of literary personas. Instead, this work takes seriously the idea that premodern objects were endowed with an autonomy and agency that was largely misrecognized in the wake of Enlightenment empiricism. Taking Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as a point of departure, this essay argues that where and how the line between human and nonhuman, subject and object, society and nature gets drawn is always an ideological process. The work surveyed here attempts to make available some of the manifold cultural pressures that influenced this permeable boundary across the Middle Ages.

Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto

“Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto.” Exemplaria 22.2 (2010): 99-118

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Medieval views of matter have traditionally been left out of discussions of materialism, in part because philosophers and historians of science have considered them to be too “metaphysical” in orientation. Materialism has therefore been defined univocally in terms of the definitions of matter in vogue during the Enlightenment (primarily physicalism and Cartesian dualism). The effects of this omission are still felt in the materialist paradigms that continue to underwrite much work in literary criticism, history, and other humanist disciplines. This article argues that our modern understanding of materialism would be usefully widened by admitting that medieval definitions of matter, both hylomorphic and humoral, constitute their own versions of “materialism,” versions that can help us to historicize later understandings of the term. Finally, medieval poetics would play a significant role in such a recuperative project, since late medieval natural philosophy and literary practice shared similar representational challenges in their respective attempts to textualize the material world and understand the immaterial forces that shaped it.

The Rebel Kiss: Jack Cade, Shakespeare, and the Chroniclers

“The Rebel Kiss: Jack Cade, Shakespeare, and the Chroniclers.” In Renaissance Retrospections: Tudor Visions of the Middle Ages, ed. Sarah Kelen. Studies in Medieval Culture 52 (Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University Press, 2013), 127-140.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Kellie Robertson (“The Rebel Kiss: Jack Cade, Shakespeare, and the Chroniclers”) shows Tudor revisionist history at work in the treatment of the figure of fifteenth-century rebel leader Jack Cade.

The Laborer’s Two Bodies: Labor and the ‘Work’ of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500

The Laborer’s Two Bodies: Labor and the ‘Work’ of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
This is an exploration the intellectual consequences of one of the most fundamental shifts in late medieval English society: the first national labour regulation in the wake of the 1348 plague.

The Laborer's Two Bodies

The Laborer's Two Bodies explores the intellectual, cultural, and political consequences of one of the most fundamental shifts in late medieval English society: the first national labor regulation in the wake of the 1348 plague.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:

From the publisher's website:

The Laborer's Two Bodies explores the intellectual, cultural, and political consequences of one of the most fundamental shifts in late medieval English society: the first national labor regulation in the wake of the 1348 plague. Bridging the medieval and early modern periods, this book analyzes a wide range of texts and images produced in this initial period of labor regulation (1349 to 1500), including texts by Chaucer, Gower, Langland, the Paston Family, and Barclay. The Laborer's Two Bodies demonstrates that the category of labor became increasingly problematic for writers who struggled to understand the meaning of work in a world where labor was simultaneously understood as punishment, virtue, and reward.

The Middle Ages at Work

This timely volume examines the commitments of historicism in the wake of New Historicism.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:

From the publisher's website:

This timely volume examines the commitments of historicism in the wake of New Historicism. It contributes to the construction of a materialist historicism while, at the same time, proposing that discussions of work need not be limited to the clash between labor and capital. To this end, the essays offer more than a strictly historical view of the complex terms, social and literary, within which labor was treated in the medieval period. Several of the essays strive to reformulate the very critical language we use to think about the categories of labor and work through a continually doubled engagement with modern theories of labor and medieval theories and practices of labor.

The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England

Co-editor (with Michael Uebel), The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA).

Talk

Abusing Aristotle

“Abusing Aristotle.” In Petropunk Collective., ed. Speculative Medievalisms: Discography (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2013). 159-172.

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Featured talk by Kellie Robertson (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison), with response from Drew Daniel (Johns Hopkins Univ.), at Speculative Medievalisms 2: A Laboratory-Atelier, held at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, on 16 September 2011

Exemplary Rocks

“Exemplary Rocks.” In Jeffrey J. Cohen, ed., Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects(Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2012). 93-123

English

Lead: Kellie Robertson
Dates:
Featured Talk delivered by Kellie Robertson for "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods" Conference, hosted by George Washington University's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute @George Washington University, 11-12 April 2011.