Next Up at the HRC: Meet VCU's Authors

Members of faculty in the humanities at VCU have an impressive record of scholarly productivity and are recognized, both nationally and internationally, for their significant contributions to our understanding of the human condition across cultures, throughout the past, and in the present. In partnership with VCU Libraries, our Meet VCU’s Authors series invites members of the Richmond community as well as colleagues and students from VCU and other local universities to come and meet VCU’s authors as they talk about their recently published books and answer questions about their work. All are welcome!
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Dr. Adin Lears is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at VCU. She will discuss Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, “The House of Fame,” at her upcoming presentation for the Humanities Research Center’s Meet VCU’s Authors series on April 5th. We caught up with Dr. Lears to learn more about her interest in Middle English literature, her book, and her favorite Middle English phrases.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What got you interested in studying English? How did your English research begin?

I think my first real excitement about English emerged when I took a Middle English literature survey class as an undergraduate and had to read a bunch of texts in Middle English without much preparation or guidance. It was really hard. A lot of the time I had very little idea what was going on; I just had to piece things together from class and the work I did on my own.

I started to notice that I recognized some words, but that they seemed to mean something different from what I thought. The example that stands out to me was when I saw the word “buxom” in the Middle English dream-vision Pearl. I was familiar with the term referring to a woman’s shape, but in Pearl it was applied to a man. As I learned, in Middle English, “buxom” meant “obedient” and was applied pretty equally to women and men. So, it first denoted a non-gender-specific internal condition and the action or behavior that resulted from it. Then at some point in modern English, it came to refer to the external shape of a woman. There was something deeply disturbing to me about that semantic transition. And that’s how I became fascinated with tracing the history of ideas and social relationships through the history of language.  

A year ago, you were named a fellow of the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. How has the fellowship helped you write your book?

The fellowship has, of course, been a huge boon in just giving me a bit more time to read and write and think about my second book. I have also found that weekly conversations with the other fellows (all on Zoom this year) have pointed me in new conceptual and theoretical directions. These conversations made me more aware of how I can amp up the stakes of my research and writing and position it in relation to contemporary critical issues.

I’m particularly fascinated with medieval narratives of historical decline and the sense of loss around the “modernity” of the Middle Ages, where technology and craft were understood to be both the source and the result of social and spiritual alienation. I think there is a lot of resonance between this and the ways we think about technology today. I’m also interested in how medieval thinkers resisted these narratives or reframed them in ways that were not exclusively tied to loss and how that can carve out new ways of thinking about our relationships with the creatures, objects, and environments around us.   

Which chapter of your book was the most fun to write?

That is a tough question because I was working with so much fun material in my first book! I think maybe my chapter on the Wife of Bath was the most fun because that character is so complicated and enigmatic. Part of the Wife’s allure, as Chaucer writes her, is that she is a master of playing with voice, language, and appearances. I found my argument shifting in subtle but really important ways all the way up to the very last minute!

What books have you read this year? Any you would recommend?

I try as much as possible to have some sort of reading going that is not immediately connected to my research and teaching. Lately, I’ve been loving Leonora Carrington — a surrealist painter and author who died several years ago but is having a bit of a moment right now as various places re-publish some of her work. Her very brief memoir Down Below recounts how she suffered a psychotic break while fleeing the Nazi occupation of Paris and was institutionalized in Spain. I found it just astounding in its strangeness, compassion, and humor. I also really loved Hari Kunzru’s recent novel Red Pill, which explores and puts pressure on the entanglements of masculinity and paranoia in contemporary academia and popular culture in really interesting and ultimately beautiful ways. 

Do you have a favorite middle-English phrase?

I love this question! There are so many. The one I’m coming up with at this moment is from a description of a personification of Gluttony in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Gluttony is waylaid from confession by a barmaid who promises him a bunch of hot spices and liquor. The passage describing his indigestion is full of great words, phrases, and sounds. Gluttony’s insides begin to “gothelen” (rumble; it’s a Middle English word meant to imitate a rumbling sound) “like greedy sows” until he “bl[ows] the rounde ruwet [a wind instrument] at his rigge-bon ende [the end of his spine].” Medieval thinkers often figured knowledge acquisition as a kind of digestion, so I read Glutton’s indigestion as a kind of misdirected or thwarted acquisition of knowledge.

Also, the Middle English poetry of farting is incomparable.

Interview by Zachary Klosko

Save the Date

Meet VCU's Authors: Aspen Brinton, Ph.D.


April 19, 2021
4:00pm (virtual event)

Registration link

Meet VCU's Authors: Kathleen Graber

April 26, 2021
4:00pm (virtual event)

Registration link

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