Literature in the Middle Ages: An Interview with Jennifer Jahner
This fall, Jennifer Jahner joined Caltech as an assistant professor of English. As an undergraduate, she planned to study environmental science at Western Washington University. But as a lifelong reader, she couldn't elude the lure of literature, and she ended up majoring in English instead, receiving her BA in 1998. Afterward, she spent several years as a book editor before returning to academia as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she took a seminar on medieval literature—a class that she says changed her life. Discovering a passion for the time period and for studying old, rare manuscripts, she got her MA in 2005 and then went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her PhD last spring. Jahner recently answered a few questions about her research and her thoughts on joining Caltech.
What do you study?
I study medieval England and particularly the relationships between legal writing and literary writing. My research looks at the writing, copying, and transmission of political lyrics, which are often short poems that try to tackle very thorny legal and political questions. What I look at are the legal ideas and discourses that these poems engage in, what sorts of manuscripts they are copied in, and what these poems can tell us about how people understood forms of community and legal obligation in the Middle Ages.
What's interesting about these poems?
One of the interesting questions about these poems is that, especially in England, they're anonymous. They survive in all sorts of settings, so they get copied into chronicles and they get copied on the flyleaves of manuscripts. They're in all sorts of languages. They're in English, they're in French, and they're in Latin. They suggest to scholars an educated milieu of readers who could understand those languages but who also were looking for entertainment, so they're propaganda pieces, they're advocating revolution against the king, they're condemning revolution against the king. They're interesting, but we don't know a lot about who wrote them or necessarily why.
How does your research straddle the line between history and literature?
Political poems in particular are interesting works for thinking about the difference between literature and history and how we mark something as literary and something else as historical. In fact, one of the reasons they don't tend to be talked about as much as other medieval texts is because they fall right on that boundary line and aren't actually very comfortable in either category.
They're poetic and they're clearly engaging in the conventions of poetic composition. They have rhyme. They have meter. They use allusions and metaphor. And they're very rich rhetorically. But their subject matter is intrinsically historical. They're talking about people and events that happened. They're talking about battles and political controversies. That means that for literary scholars, they're often thought of as somehow less literary than something that might be entirely invented. For the historians, they are useful to a degree as evidence of what people might have been thinking or talking about around a given event. But precisely because they're poetic and they're taking license with those events, they don't measure up to the standards of a true or trustworthy source.
What excites you about your work?
There's so much about the Middle Ages that we still don't know. There are so many texts that remain to be read, thought about, and edited. I love the fact that my job requires and allows me to look at things that are 600 or 700 years old that were copied out by hand and were bound by hand. I find the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the Middle Ages also really compelling. You can't take for granted any of your own assumptions about what it meant to read things, what it meant to listen to things. It's also just really hard. You have to know dead languages. I like the challenge of it.
What excites you about coming to Caltech?
Caltech is actually a really great place to be a humanist. My work tends to be interdisciplinary and it's really common for medievalists to be interdisciplinary because the period doesn't recognize the same boundaries that we do now. It's great to be at a place like Caltech, where our division is a de facto interdisciplinary department. We're made up of literature scholars, historians, and philosophers. It's an exciting place for me to be, because I get to work really closely in a daily setting with people who are doing different kinds of things from me, that are related in ways that I wouldn't necessarily expect.
The other thing that's great about being here is that it's a mile away from the Huntington Library, which is one of the premier manuscript and rare-book libraries in the world and has a terrific medieval-manuscript collection. I feel like I couldn't have landed in a better place.
Having to read and write so much for your work, do you still get to read for pleasure?
I read now less for fun than I ever have at any point in my life. But I will always have a novel on the bed stand. The reward for getting some project done is to relax with a book.